Educator’s Guide: Return to Sender

Educator’s Guide: Return to Sender

Return to Sender by Julia Alvarez is the selection for the LAII’s Vamos a Leer book group meeting held on February 6, 2012.

The following information comprises a standards-based educator’s guide that the LAII has produced to support using to support using Return to Sender (Julia Alvarez, Yearling, 2010) in the classroom.  The standards are not included here, but are included with each section of the lesson plans in the PDF.  The complete guide is available for download at no cost: Vamos a Leer Educator’s Guide: Return to Sender.

To read our thoughts on the novel, see our book review.


After Tyler’s father is injured in a tractor accident, his family is forced to hire migrant Mexican workers to help save their Vermont farm from foreclosure.  Tyler isn’t sure what to make of these workers.  Are they undocumented?  And what about the three daughters, particularly Mari, the oldest, who is proud of her Mexican heritage but also increasingly connected to her American life.  Her family lives in constant fear of being discovered by the authorities and sent back to the poverty they left behind in Mexico.  Can Tyler and Mari find a way to be friends despite their differences?


2010 Américas Award Winner
2010 Pura Belpré Award Winner


Julia Alvarez’s thoughts on writing Return to Sender:

“The seed for the novel came when I got involved in translating at local schools for the children of Mexican migrant workers who have now made their way up to Vermont.  (And boosted our compromised Latino population!).  These workers are now doing the milking on many of our dairy farms.  Without them, many of our small farmers could not survive, as they, too, are being squeezed by the high cost of farming and a dearth of workers.”

“Seeing how baffled the Mexican children and their classmates were about how to understand this situation that had thrown us all together, I thought: we need a story to understand what is happening to us!  The title comes from a dragnet operation that the Department of Homeland Security conducted in 2006, named, Return to Sender.  Work places were raided and undocumented workers were seized.  Their children were the biggest casualties of this operation – left behind to be soothed and reassured until they could be finally reunited with their parents” (Julia Alvarez’s website).

Check out Julia Alvarez’s author website for more information and helpful resources for using Return to Sender in the classroom, including:


The following lesson plans and activities are grouped thematically into the following sections: Citizenship, Immigration, History, Art and Culture, and Literary Interpretation.


The Law and Civil Disobedience

This lesson is meant to help students connect to Tyler’s struggle with the idea of breaking the law and whether or not it was right for his family to hire Mari’s family even though her parents had immigrated illegally.  This activity encourages your students to engage with the idea of civil disobedience, thinking about what it means, how it is different from breaking the law, and if it is ever an acceptable means of protest.  After a guided class discussion on the topic, the students will participate in a structured debate on the issue.

Engage your students in a discussion of this idea of civil disobedience.  Depending upon the age group of your students, you could read excerpts from Civil Disobedience by Thoreau or use the Stanford Encycopedia Entry on Civil Disobedience found here (http://).  In this discussion it is important to be specific about what civil disobedience means.  You could start by asking students to brainstorm possibilities for the definition of civil disobedience.  Then, provide them a standard or widely accepted definition for the term.  Below is an example taken from the entry on Civil Disobedience in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  It’s quite lengthy, the first sentence could be sufficient, or you may want to go into a more in-depth discussion using it in its entirety.  The key is to make it clear that breaking the law and civil disobedience are not always the same.  There are important differences, most importantly that the breach of law is done in order to bring about a change in law or policy and those who commit it are willing to accept the consequences.

“. . .civil disobedience is a public, non-violent and conscientious breach of law undertaken with the aim of bringing about a change in laws or government policies.  On this account, the persons who practice civil disobedience are willing to accept the legal consequences of their actions, as this shows their fidelity to the rule of law. Civil disobedience, given its place at the boundary of fidelity to law, is said to fall between legal protest, on the one hand, and conscientious refusal, revolutionary action, militant protest and organized forcible resistance, on the other hand” (paragraph 1,

With a definition in mind, continue the discussion, asking students if they can think of anyone they’ve learned about that have participated in acts of civil disobedience.  Possible suggestions: Henry David Thoreau (who coined the term, civil disobedience); the Boston Tea Party; the suffragette movement; the resistance to British rule led by Gandhi; the U.S. civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and many others; resistance to apartheid in South Africa; and student sit-ins against the Vietnam War.

Next, have students discuss if it is ever right to break the law? Is civil disobedience ever an acceptable means of protest? Once students have started thinking and talking about the issue there are two activities you can do as forms of closure or assessment: a class debate or a persuasive essay.

Class Debate

This activity is designed to have students use the information they’ve learned through the previous discussion, in order to come to a real understanding of both sides of the issues.   Regardless of the side students represent, through the debate they will come to an understanding of the pros and cons of both sides, realizing that it is a complex issue with no easy answers.  At the end of this guide are two activity sheets created for use with this activity.

For this activity, the class is divided into three groups: In favor of civil disobedience; Against civil disobedience; Judges.  How the groups are formed is up to the teacher.  I usually have students count off by 3s.  This simplifies the process, ensures the groups are equal in size, and reinforces the idea that it is important to know both sides of a debate, regardless of one’s personal opinion.  The timeframe for this completing this activity is up to the teacher—largely depending upon the age group and the teacher’s expectations for the level of information produced by each group. It could be a one day activity, or stretched out into multiple days for a more in-depth activity.

This activity can also be expanded, especially for older students, by including a final writing assignment where they must write their own persuasive essay, supporting the side they believe is correct.  After the debate has been completed, students must pick a side of the debate and write a persuasive essay supporting the side they chose and critiquing the opposing view.  Depending upon the age level, students can be required to cite primary or secondary sources to support their argument.

When it is time to actually conduct the debate, I usually follow the structure below.  You may need to adjust it—making it shorter, longer, adding rounds, etc. to make it work for your own class. A coin toss can be used to decide who goes first. Remind students that there is no talking during the other group’s turn—they cannot respond to that group’s comments until it is their turn.

Round One: Introduction to argument
Each group gets 5 minutes to introduce their main points

Round Two: Response
Each group gets 4 minutes to respond to their opponents’ claims and add any relevant information to their argument

Round Three: Response
Each group gets 3 minutes to respond to their opponents’ claims and add any relevant information to their argument

Round Four: Closing Remarks
Each group gets 5 minutes to make any final arguments and closing remarks to the judges.


Begin with a map of North America (including Mexico). Find Chiapas on the map.  Place a sticker or some other marker on Chiapas.  Then find North Carolina.  Place another marker there.  Next find Vermont. Place another marker there. Using string, yarn, stickytape, etc mark the path from Chiapas to North Carolina, to Vermont.  Discuss how far Mari had to travel. Ask your students how many of them have travelled that far before. What would it be like to be so far from the rest of your family—grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins? Would they want to leave behind everything that is familiar and safe to them and move to another country?

To expand the activity research Chiapas using books, internet resources, etc.  This can either be done by individual students, small groups, or as a whole class.  Write a paper or create a poster that tells important facts about Chiapas–the culture, the history, the people.  Then have students complete a Venn Diagram and/or write a compare and contrast essay on Chiapas and the United States (or Vermont, or their own city).


Mexican Migration and the Trail of Tears

Tyler compares the Mexican migration to the Trail of Tears on page 14.  Re-read this section.  Then, research what the Trail of Tears is.  Do you agree with Tyler? Are the two similar?  How are they the same? How are they different? Can what happened during the Trail of Tears inform or educate us about the current situation of Mexican migration? Write an essay or create a poster presentation to share your thoughts with the class.

Homeland Security and the Underground Railroad

Tyler compares creating an escape plan for the Cruz family to the Underground Railroad on page 117.  Re-read this section.  Research the Underground Railroad.  What was the Underground Railroad? What did it accomplish? Why do you think he compares the two? How are they the same? How are they different? Write an essay or create a poster presentation to share your thoughts with the class.


Symbolism and La Golondrina

 This lesson is designed to encourage students to think about the importance of symbolism in the novel and what it represents. The swallow is an important symbol throughout the book, Mari and Tyler discuss it for the first time on page 53.  This lesson builds upon the excerpt of the poem “La Golondrina” found at the beginning of the book, but for a more in depth lesson, students could read the entire poem. It is an activity that can be done once the entire book has been read, but it may be useful to note the multiple references to the swallow as the class progresses through the book.

 Begin by reading the excerpt of the poem La Golondrina found at the front of the book after the title page.  Discuss with students the following questions: What do you think the swallow symbolizes for the story? What does it represent? What does the poem La Golondrina mean? How do you interpret it?  It would be interesting to have this discussion twice—once before students have read the book and then after they have read the book.  Students could do a quick write response after the first discussion and a more in-depth reflective essay once they have finished the book.

 Letter Writing

Discuss the following questions with your class:

Letter writing plays a prominent role in the book. The students write letters as part of class assignments, but Mari also writes letters that are an important part of the story.  Why do you think the author uses letters to tell the story? Why do you think Mari chooses to write so many letters? Why are the letters important to her? What do they provide for her? Why do you think we don’t write as many letters today, as people did in the past?  See the link below for a blog entry on how the letters in Return to Sender represent a space for border crossing.
Once students have discussed the role of letter writing in the book, have them write their own letter to anyone they would like.  Give them the option to share their letter with the class.

Art and Culture

An interest in stars is one of the first things that Tyler and Mari find they have in common.  Create a constellation (using crayons, construction paper, star stickers, etc.) that would be significant or meaningful for Mari and/or Tyler.  Tell the story of the constellation and why it’s important to Mari and/or Tyler. Another option would be to have students create a constellation that is meaningful to them, that tells an important part of their life story.  Then, they could write the story of that constellation and its significance to them.


“No Human Being Was Born Illegal.”
Produced by Not in Our School (, this is a short documentary about a high school history class that chose “to conduct a lunch-time demonstration to draw attention to the use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe undocumented immigrants.”

Latin American & Iberian Institute
The Latin American & Iberian Institute (LAII) receives resources from the U.S. Department of Education to support K-12 teachers teaching about Latin America.  Our goal is to provide a supportive environment for teachers across grade levels and subject areas so they can bring regional and linguistic knowledge of Latin America into their classrooms.  As such as we provide curriculum materials, professional development works, and many more resources – nearly all of which are available on our website.

 The Line Between Us by Rethinking Schools Publications
The Line Between Us
explores the history of U.S-Mexican relations and the roots of Mexican immigration, all in the context of the global economy. And it shows how teachers can help students understand the immigrant experience and the drama of border life.

“First Crossing” by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Featured in The Line Between Us and the book First Crossing: Stories about Teen Immigrants, this short storytells of a young teen boy from Jalisco’s first trip across the border in Tijuana. The story tells of the coyotes – the people who take illegal immigrants across the border, how much people pay for the crossing and the dangers involved in doing so.

“The Space Between: A Beginning Journey Into Border Crossing” by Julia López & Lillian Reeves, University of South Carolina.

An interesting blog entry that rationalizes using Return to Sender in the classroom and explores the possibilities for student responses.

“‘Return to Sender,’ by Julia Alvarez.” Review by Sonja Bolle published in L.A. Times (25 Jan 2009).


Written by staff at the UNM Latin American & Iberian Institute (LAII), Vamos a Leer Educators Guides provide an excellent way to teach about Latin America through literacy.  Each guide is based upon a book featured in the Vamos a Leer book group.  For more materials that support teaching about Latin America in the classroom, visit the LAII website. This guide was prepared Feb. 2012 by Katrina Dillon, LAII Project Assistant.


One thought on “Educator’s Guide: Return to Sender

  1. Thank you all for joining us yesterday evening to talk about Return to Sender! We certainly enjoyed ourselves and appreciated all of your thoughtful comments and feedback. We hope you’ll be able to join us again on March 5 when we will be discussing Julia Alvarez’s novel “Before We Were Free.”

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