Central America: An Introductory Lesson

Middle School and High School

By Pat Scallen

Students engaged in the lesson.

Students engaged in the lesson.

The immediate reasons for the rapid increase in Central Americans crossing the U.S. border include high levels of poverty brought on by economic stagnation, political unrest, and violence. Many of these problems are rooted in centuries of structural economic inequality, state-sponsored oppression, and institutionalized racism.

D.C. public school teachers engaged in the lesson.

D.C. public school teachers engaged in the lesson.

This lesson is designed to introduce students to several of these concepts through brief biographical sketches of figures in twentieth-century Central American history. It then builds upon this knowledge in examining the role the United States has played in the affairs of these smaller nations residing in what many U.S. presidents have considered our own backyard.

Time Required

45-50 minutes


Students will emerge with a deeper understanding of:

  • key concepts and themes which define contemporary Central American politics and society,

  • U.S. foreign policy in Central America, and

  • the push factors leading to Central American migration to the United States.


  • Copies of “Getting to Know Central America” questions

  • Name tags: Distribute blank name tags and have students write their character’s name or use the pre-prepared photo name tags included at the end of this lesson. Print on card stock and use string to create hanging name tags.

  • Meet-and-greet roles, one per student.



  • Col. Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán Irma Flaquer Azurdia

  • Otto Rene Castillo

  • Rigoberta Menchú Tum

  • Gen. Efrain Rios Montt

  • Nora Murillo


  • Berta Isabel Cáceres Flores

  • Fredi Onan Vicen Peña

United States

  • Jimmy Carter

  • Roberto Clemente

  • Charlie Clements

  • The Dulles Brothers

  • Andrés McKinley (also El Salvador)

  • Oliver North

  • Ronald Reagan

  • Robert White

El Salvador

  • Claribel Alegria (Also Nicaragua)

  • Roque Dalton

  • Major Roberto D’Aubuisson

  • Vicky Guzman

  • Yolanda del Carmen Marín

  • Agustín Farabundo Martí

  • Gen. Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez

  • Andrés McKinley (also United States)

  • Archbishop Oscar Romero

  • Maria Serrano


  • Claribel Alegria (also El Salvador)

  • Gioconda Belli

  • Fr. Ernesto Cardenal

  • Violeta Barrios de Chamorro

  • Carlos Mejia Godoy

  • Daniel Ortega

  • Brooklyn Rivera

  • Anastasio Somoza Debay

  • Augusto César Sandino

Augusto Sandino

Augusto Sandino

Rigoberta Menchu

Rigoberta Menchu

Gioconda Belli

Gioconda Belli

Gen. Somoza

Gen. Somoza

The video clip below is provided to offer the teacher a sense of how the lesson looks in action.  Teaching for Change curriculum specialist Julian Hipkins III is introducing the lesson to students at a high school in D.C. The school has a high percentage of Central American students. Following the lesson there are brief reflections from students. (Note that this was filmed with a handheld camera, so the production is a bit shaky.)