Educator’s Guide: Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

Vamos a Leer | Featured Book | Silver People by Margarita EngleSilver People: Voices from the Panama Canal by Margarita Engle is the selection for the LAII’s Vamos a Leer book group meeting held on September 12, 2016.

For the majority of our featured novels, we create a standards-based educator’s guide to support using the book in the classroom. Instead, for Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal (Engle, HMH Books for Young Readers, 2014), we have compiled resources below to highlight the book’s award-winning characteristics and Engle herself.

In lieu of the lesson plans and activities we would normally produce, we are instead pleased to feature the work of our colleagues at Stanford University and Vanderbilt University.

The complete guides are available for download at no cost:

Stanford University’s Teacher’s Guide to Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal

Vanderbilt University’s Lesson Plan for Stories from the Panama Canal

To read our thoughts on the novel, see Vamos a Leer’s book review.


One hundred years ago, the world celebrated the opening of the Panama Canal, which connected the world’s two largest oceans and signaled America’s emergence as a global superpower. It was a miracle, this path of water where a mountain had stood—and creating a miracle is no easy thing. Thousands lost their lives, and those who survived worked under the harshest conditions for only a few silver coins a day.

From the young “silver people” whose back-breaking labor built the Canal to the denizens of the endangered rainforest itself, this is the story of one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, as only Newbery Honor-winning author Margarita Engle could tell it.


  • Américas Award (2015)
  • Jane Addams Award 2015 Honor Book
  • Green Earth Award Honor Book
  • Junior Library Guild selection, Spring 2014
  • Teaching for Change 2016 Summer Reading and Writing Challenge
  • CCBC Global Reading List
  • Bank Street Center for Children’s Literature 2015 Best Children’s Books of the Year
  • NCTE Notable Children’s Book in the Language Arts
  • ALSC Notable Books in the Social Sciences
  • New York Public Library Top 25 Books for Young Adults
  • International Latino Book Award finalist and Honorable Mention
  • Teaching for Change Best Books
  • ABC Best Books for Children list of ABA (American Booksellers Association)
  • Recommended by Rethinking Schools in the School Resource section of the January 2014 issue.
  • 2015 International Reading Association Notable Books for a Global Society


Margarita Engle is a prolific Cuban-American author who writes children’s, young adult and adult books. Many of her books have Latin American protagonists or touch upon themes of Latin American culture and society. Although she tackles complicated and difficult topics, from abolitionism and slavery to racist exploitation and destruction of the natural world, she makes her work accessible by writing in a poetic, free verse prose — a style which readers young and old alike can readily enjoy and understand. For these reasons and more, she remains one of our treasured and most frequent authors here at Vamos a Leer.

As we do for many of our featured authors, we like to take the time to celebrate that author and his or her collective body of work. Previously, we’ve enjoyed discussing several of Engle’s young adult novels, including The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom, Hurricane Dancers: The First Caribbean Pirate Shipwreck, and Lightning Dreamer: Cuba’s Greatest Abolitionist. In part, we return again and again to Engle’s work because it offers teachers a unique opportunity to engage students around lesser-studied histories. The books are relatively short, with an informative free verse writing form that is at once accessible to struggling readers and inspiring for older readers.

Given our appreciation for how well Engle’s books can fit with classroom instruction, it should come as no surprise that fellow blogger Katrina has produced educator’s guides to accompany each of our featured books above and has also written  an inspiring post on Rhythm and Resistance – Teaching Poetry for Social Justice, where she discusses Engle’s use of poetry as “the medium through which to write books about often lesser known historical characters, periods, and events.”

In addition to focusing on lesser-known histories, Engle’s work also demonstrates a profound appreciation for the natural world. In her groundbreaking novel about the construction of the Panama Canal, Silver People, for instance, voices representing the ravaged forest are as equally present as the voices of the exploited laborers. More recently, in her novel Sky Painter¸she brings to life the history of Louis Agassiz Fuertes (1874–1927), whose stunning bird illustrations helped inspire ornithological conservation efforts. Engle has attributed her love for plants and nature to the summer spent in Cuba as a child — a period of influence which she explores in Enchanted Air as she discusses her bifurcated childhood spent growing up on the island nation and in the U.S. Currently, when not writing, Engle also works as a botanist and professor at California State Polytechnic University.

We are not alone in admiring Engle. Her work only continues to gain acclaim and recognition. Most notably, in 2009 she became the first Latino author to win the Newbery Honor for her novel The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom. Yet in truth, she has won so many accolades that it would be impossible for us to list them all here.

In an interview conducted by Colorin Colorado, Engle explains the impetus behind her impressive body of work:

Writing a historical novel in verse feels like time travel, a dreamlike blend of imagination and reality. It is an exploration. It is also a chance to communicate with the future, through young readers. I love to write about young people who made hopeful choices in situations that seemed hopeless. My own hope is that tales of courage and compassion will ring true for youthful readers as they make their own difficult decisions in modern times.

Indeed, Engle’s stories take readers on imaginative, fulfilling and informative journeys while also giving children and young adults the hope and courage to pursue their own journeys and dreams.

For those of you interested in learning more about Margarita Engle, here are some additional resources:

For those of you looking for lesson plans for teaching Margarita Engle’s books, here are some useful resources:


As mentioned above (second paragraph), we are pleased to highlight here the exemplary resources for Silver People from our colleagues at Stanford University and Vanderbilt University.

Stanford University’s guide was produced by the Stanford Program on International and Cross-Cultural Education (SPICE), in collaboration with the Stanford Center for Latin American Studies and the Consortium of Latin American Studies Programs (CLASP). The primary author of this teacher’s guide is Jonas Edman, SPICE Curriculum Writer.

Through reading comprehension, suggested activities, and research Edman’s curriculum encourages secondary students to explore the Panama Canal through themes such as apartheid, colonialism, cross-cultural communication, discrimination, ecosystems, identity, labor, and migration.

Vanderbilt University’s guide is a Common Core Standards based project for grades 6-8.  This learning segment uses Margarita Engle’s Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal and the oral storytelling project, Voices from Our America to give students a more nuanced understanding of the people of the Panama Canal.