Educator’s Guide: The Surrender Tree

Educator’s Guide: The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom

The Surrender Tree: Poems of Cuba’s Struggle for Freedom by Margarita Engle is the selection for the LAII’s Vamos a Leer book group meeting held on April 2, 2012.

The following information comprises a standards-based educator’s guide that the LAII has produced to support using The Surrender Tree (Margarita Engle, Square Fish, Holt, 2008) 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: The Surrender Tree. You can also find the Spanish language version of this page and Educator’s Guide here.

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



It is 1896. Cuba has fought three wars for independence and still is not free. People have been rounded up in concentration camps with too little food and too much illness. Rosa is a nurse, but with a price on her head for helping the rebels, she dares not go to the camps. Instead, she turns hidden caves into hospitals for those who know how to find her. Black, white, Cuban, Spanish—Rosa does her best for everyone. Yet who can heal a country so torn apart by war?


  • Newbery Honor
  • Pura Belpré Award
  • Américas Award
  • Jane Addams Award
  • Claudia Lewis Poetry Award

(among many others)


Margarita Engle’s own thoughts on writing, novels-in-verse, and the influence of her family’s history:

“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.

My connection to the history of Cuba is personal. My American father traveled to the island after seeing National Geographic pictures of my Cuban mother’s hometown, Trinidad. Even though they did not speak the same language, they fell in love and got married. I was born and raised in my father’s hometown of Los Angeles, California, but we spent summers in Cuba, where I developed a deep bond with my extended family. I also developed a lifelong passion for tropical nature, which led me to study agronomy and botany, along with creative writing” (

“When I wrote The Poet Slave of Cuba and The Surrender Tree as historical novels in free verse, I hoped that the form would appeal to young adult readers who want a full-length book with mature topics, but may be intimidated by the more crowded pages of traditional prose. Personally, I am in love with the novel in verse form. Poetry allows me to distill a complex story down to its emotional essence. I think students focus on the challenges characters face. The one comment I consistently get when teenagers write to me is: “I thought my own life was hard, but now I really appreciate all that I have” (School Library Journal).

Check out Margarita Engle’s website for more information.


In addition to the lesson plans and activities included here, check out  the other resources below:

The following lesson plans include detailed Guided Reading Questions organized by the chapter they pertain to in The Surrender Tree.  This section also includes accompanying writing prompts to conclude each of the five parts of the book.

Literary Interpretation: Guided Reading Questions and Writing Prompts

Part One: The Names of the Flowers 1850-1851| Pages 1-22

  1. Why would those on the ‘outside’ (slave hunters, plantation owners) call Rosa a witch?
  2. Who are the cimarrones? (p. 4).
  3. What is a barracoon? (p. 7)
  4. Why does Lt. Death’s father tell him to just call Rosa ‘little witch’ instead of ‘little witch girl’? (p. 9)
  5. How does Rosa contrast the slave and the rich man? (p. 10)
  6. There are more than just Africans enslaved in Cuba.  What are the other nationalities or ethnicities of slaves in Cuba?
  7. What does Rosa mean when she says that hatred must be a hard thing to learn? (p. 22)

Writing Prompt:

  1. On page 4 Rosa writes that the runaway slaves and their hidden villages are “protected by words—tales of guardian angels, mermaids, witches, giants, ghosts”.  What does she mean by “protected by words”? How do these words protect the runaway slaves or cimarrones? Think about how Lt. Death describes the runaway slaves and their hideouts.  Re-read pages 3 and 15 to help you answer the question.

Part Two: The Ten Years War 1868-1878 | Pages 23-66

  1. Why do the plantation owners burn their fields and free their slaves? (p. 26).
  2. What does Rosa mean when she says, “Can it be true that freedom only exists when it is a treasure, shared by all?” (p. 26).
  3. What is Rosa’s war?  What is she fighting against? How does she fight? What does she fight with? (p. 26).
  4. What does Rosa’s nickname become? Why? (p. 28).
  5. What is the sad, confusing fragrance? Why is it sad and confusing? (p. 28).
  6. On page 33 Rosa contrasts how the Spanish soldiers look and move with how the rebels look and move.  What is the difference between the two? (p. 33).  Why do you think they are so different?
  7. According to Lt. Death and Lt.-Gen. Valeriano Wegler, why won’t Spain recognize freed slaves? (p. 37-38).
  8. What types of injuries and illnesses do Rosa and Jose treat? (p. 44-45).
  9. What is the one thing that Rosa wishes for? Why do you think she wishes for this? (p. 47).
  10. Rosa remembers Lt. Death, but does it seem like he remembers her from the time that she treated his wounds? (p. 58).
  11. Would you have healed Lt. Death? Why or why not?
  12. Why does Rosa heal him? (p. 58).
  13. Did anything change when the war ended? (p. 66).

Writing Prompts:

  1. What do you think it would be like to be Rosa? What do you think would be the most difficult part of her life? What do you think would be the best part of her life?
  2. Think about what Rosa and Jose wish for (p. 47 and p. 50).  Compare what they wish for to the things that people typically wish for today, or even the things that you wish for.  How are our wishes different from theirs? Does it make you think any differently about the things we wish for today when we compare them to Jose and Rosa’s wishes?
  3. Compare and Contrast how Rosa and Jose describe the island with how Lt. General Valerian Weylar y Nicolau and Lt. Death describe it.

Part Three: The Little War 1878-1880 | Pages 67-75

  1. What do you think of Rosa’s question “How can there be a little war?” What does she mean by this? (p. 76).

Part Four: The War of Independence 1895-1898 | Pages 77-138

  1.   Who does Lt. Death hunt now that slavery is outlawed? (p. 82).
  2. Where do peasants have to report? (p. 83).
  3. What is the difference between the young and the old according to Rosa? (p. 113).
  4. How does the 2nd stanza on pg. 120 describe or represent Lt. Death? (p. 120).
  5. Contrast Captain General Valerian Weyler y Nicolau’s life with that of the rebels in this war.  How are they different? Are there any similarities? (p. 130).
  6. Why does Rosa think the U.S. is interested in Cuba? (p. 131).
  7. What happens to Lt. General Valerian Weylar y Nicolau? (p. 138).
  8. How does the U.S. get involved in Cuba? What major event happens? (p. 141).

Writing Prompts:

  1. Describe the events that transpire in the Silvia’s life from the beginning of part IV to when she escapes the reconcentration camp.  How has her life changed?

Part Five: The Surrender Tree 1898-1899 | Pages 139-158

  1. What does Rosa notice about the U.S. troops? (p. 147).
  2. Who are the members of the Rough Riders?( p. 146).
  3. How does the 3rd War end?  (p. 154-155).
  4. Are the Cubans free now? (p. 154-155).
  5. Who cedes power to the U.S.? Does he really have that power? (p. 154-155).
  6. What flag now flies in Cuba? Why is this significant? (p. 154-155).
  7. How does the U.S. involvement change things? (p. 139-158).

 Writing Prompts:

  1. Is peace what Rosa and Silvia thought it would be?  What is peace like in Cuba at the end of the book?  How is it different from what Rosa and Silvia imagined?

Timeline of Early Cuban History
Create an initial timeline of early Cuban History using the text of The Surrender Tree.  Then, using appropriate print and online resources, research early Cuban History in greater detail.  Create a timeline of early Cuban History with descriptions and illustrations of important events.  The Surrender Tree also includes a timeline at the end of the book under Chronology.

Important People
In the section “Historical Note” at the end of the book, Engle writes that the majority of the characters are historical figures.  Choose one character to research.  Choose from the following: Rosario Castellanos Castellanos or Rosa la Bayamesa, Jose Francisco Varona, El Grillo, or El Joven.

Compare slavery in Cuba, based upon Rosa’s descriptions in the beginning of the book, to slavery in the U.S.

Concentration Camps
The words “concentration camp” are often associated with The Holocaust in World War II, but there have been other significant uses of concentration camps that are often overlooked.  The use of concentration camps in Cuba as referred to in The Surrender Tree is just one example.  They were also used in the western United States during World War II.  Research these and other examples of the use of concentration camps during wars.  Pick two examples and write an essay that compares and contrasts them.  What do they have in common?  Why were they used?  Did the majority of people at the time accept their use?  Was there any political resistance to their implementation?


Medicinal Plants
Research the use of medicinal plants, perhaps those specific to Cuba or the Caribbean.  Write a paper about one or more of these plants, their use, and any interesting historical facts or stories.


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 in 2012 by Katrina Dillon, LAII Project Assistant, and Kathryn Peters, LAII Graduate Assistant.

6 thoughts on “Educator’s Guide: The Surrender Tree

  1. Pingback: En la Clase: Novels in Verse for National Poetry Month | Vamos a Leer

  2. Pingback: En la Clase: Rhythm and Resistance~Teaching Poetry for Social Justice | Vamos a Leer

  3. Pingback: ¡Mira Look!: Author’s Corner: Margarita Engle | Vamos a Leer

  4. Pingback: Book Review: Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings | Vamos a Leer

  5. Pingback: Book Review: Silver People: Voices from the Panama Canal | Vamos a Leer

  6. Pingback: The Surrender Tree by Margarita Engle - Bookmark My Word

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s