Exploring the Histories of El Salvador and
Guatemala with Literature

Middle and High School

By Justin Sybenga

Unit Summary


Central American literature is nearly invisible in our schools. A student with family roots in El Salvador could make it from pre kindergarten through senior year without reading a text written by someone from Central America, much less El Salvador. And most students graduate high school without a rudimentary understanding of the history of U.S. involvement in Central America, which has spurred waves of immigration to the United States.

In this instructional unit, students draw on the When We Were Young website and literature (fiction and nonfiction) to understand the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala and the ongoing effects of these conflicts on Central America and the United States. Students will gain an understanding of the history using young adult novels,  the video documentaries of six children who grew up during the civil wars, and a wide collection of supplemental texts available on this website.

Students select one of the six featured novels about El Salvador or Guatemala. They research important events from Guatemalan and Salvadoran history and create timelines that visually map the connections between the historical and fictional stories. Students meet regularly with their book group and other book groups and participate in a variety of small group discussions to provoke critical thinking and close textual analysis. The unit culminates in a whole class Socratic seminar discussion, drawing on all of the novels and supplemental texts on the website. Students build on the ideas they’ve explored in class discussion to write an essay on a theme of their choice and/or to write a book review to publish on Goodreads.

This unit could be taught over 4-6 weeks depending on which activities the teacher decides to include or omit and what additional activities or assessments are added. It could be used with students in middle school or high school, depending on student reading levels and the books selected. 

In preparation for teaching this unit, teachers can build essential background knowledge for themselves by:

  • Reading summaries of each of the characters featured on “When We Were Young/There Was A War” in the Content Overview tab of the Teacher Resources.
  • Learn about the history of El Salvador and Guatemala by reading the information posted in the El Salvador Maps and Facts and the Guatemala Maps and Facts tabs.
  • Teaching for Change has a dedicated website to encourage and support teaching about Central America.
  • Harvest of Empire is a documentary based on the book of the same name by Juan Gonzalez, which recounts the histories behind Latino migration to the United States, both past and present.

Guiding Questions

  • What are the most significant root causes of the civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s? How could these problems have been more effectively addressed?
  • How can young people heal from repeated exposure to violence and trauma?
  • How do writers of historical fiction express a political perspective on historical events?

Learning Objectives/Targets

  • To explain key events from the history and culture of Guatemala and El Salvador over the last century
  • To explain how the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador impacted the lives of families during the war and until the present day
  • To make connections between primary and secondary historical sources about Guatemala and El Salvador and fictional accounts of the same events
  • To accurately summarize and paraphrase information from credible research sources and to cite information correctly
  • To compare and contrast the setting, conflict, point of view, characters, and plot of historical novels on the same topic
  • To use significant, relevant text evidence to support interpretations of the text in discussion and writing
  • To identify the author’s tone towards the subject matter by analyzing diction, imagery, and details
  • To analyze the author’s perspective on political issues that emerge in historical fiction and to evaluate that perspective using other sources
  • To develop open-ended questions that will provoke engaged discussion of significant issues raised by the texts
  • To analyze a character’s traits, beliefs, and values and how these impact a character’s response to conflict or trauma
  • To listen actively to class discussion in order to build on, challenge, or extend other students’ ideas


Grades 6-10

Caminar by Skila Brown

Journey of Dreams by Marge Pellegrino

The Only Road by Alexandra Diaz

Grades 10-12

Mother Tongue by Demetria Martinez

One Day of Life by Manlio Argueta

The Weight of All Things by Sandra Benitez