English Language Arts, Middle School Reads, Novel Study

5 Activities for Teaching Esperanza Rising

Looking for a way to engage your students in fun and educational activities for Esperanza Rising? In this blog, we have compiled a list of 5 activities for teaching Esperanza Rising, along with 5 lesson ideas. These activities will not only intrigue your students but also enrich their understanding of this remarkable story.

From creating a character profile to exploring the themes of resilience and gratitude from varying perspectives, these activities will foster creativity, critical thinking, and empathy in young readers. So, grab a copy of Esperanza Rising and get ready for a memorable and educational adventure!

Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan, is a classic upper-elementary to middle school-aged novel. I have taught this beloved book for going on ten years now. It’s a favorite among boys and girls, and from 4th graders to 7th graders.

Esperanza Rising Summary

Centered around a thirteen-year-old named Esperanza who lives in Mexico with her wealthy family, the reader is taken on a journey of loss and transformation.

We discover early on that Esperanza’s father is killed at the hands of bandits a day before her thirteenth birthday. This tragic event leaves behind her and her mother, and the vineyard, El Rancho De Las Rosas. Esperanza’s step-uncles quickly swoop in to take care of the affairs of the ranch. One uncle, in particular, blackmails Esperanza’s mother into marriage.

Instead of accepting the proposal, Ramona and Esperanza flee to California with their ex-servants, during the time of the Great Depression and Dust Bowl era. Esperanza quickly realizes she has not only lost her father but her security and identity as she’s now a poor migrant worker living in a shack.

Tremendous Growth, Maturity, and Transformation

This story is one of Esperanza showing tremendous growth, maturity, and transformation as she endured one valley after another.

Esperanza Rising is a novel that pulls readers in as there is one tragedy after another, but Pam Munoz Ryan offers glimpses of hope throughout to stir the reader on. Because of the many deep layers this historical fictional novel yields, it is a wonderful book to teach.

Compelling Narrative

Not only does Esperanza Rising captivate readers with its compelling narrative, but it also provides a wealth of opportunities for interactive and educational activities. Grab our Esperanza Rising Activities: 14 Research Projects for projects specifically about the history behind the novel, along with other hands-on activities. This unit will also promote critical thinking, creativity, and empathy. 

Grab yours today.

Activities for Teaching Esperanza Rising

1. Explore Symbolism

Pam Munoz Ryan has named each chapter of Esperanza Rising after a season of harvest or a type of food that appears within the story. Not only does the food appear literally in the story, but it comes with deeper meanings in each chapter. 

Explore Symbolism

The first chapter is called “Grapes,” and the author begins the book in the beautiful, expansive vineyard that Esperanza’s family owns, right before harvest season. Esperanza even is tasked with cutting the first cluster of grapes before the workers harvest the fruit. The grapes represented fruitfulness, wealth, liveliness, happiness, and home.  

Later on, in the chapter titled “Figs,” as Esperanza and her mother devised a way to escape to California, a family friend who is a farmer brings figs over as a decoy to distract the real reason he is there, which is to help carry out their plan. Just as they leave their family ranch for the last time, the figs are trampled and squashed beneath their feet. This action symbolizes how they stomped out their past that was riddled with tragedy.

Classroom Activity:

Esperanza Rising is rich with deep symbolism and the chapter titles are the perfect place to begin. Ryan weaves profound meanings in the simplest of ways. When reading this novel, I always point out the chapter title to students and have them predict how this particular food item will appear literally and figuratively. Once we read the chapter, the students track the symbolism on a chart. The students list how it appears in the story and the deeper meaning that can be taken from it. 

We also illustrate the symbolism behind the chapter titles. In a graphic organizer, students illustrate a chapter title. For instance, students can draw the image of almonds, which appears in the novel as Esperanza’s friends and family make almond flan, her favorite dessert, for a fiesta that takes place while living in California in a migrant farming camp. Then, students illustrate the symbolism. Esperanza had to crack open the almonds from the shells to prepare to make the almond flan. This action can be drawn to show symbolism. That act demonstrates the deeper meaning of how Esperanza is coming out of her shell and stepping into a new identity. 

2. Explore Metaphors

Pam Munoz Ryan writes just beautifully, ebbing her writing with copious amounts of metaphors. Even the basic premise of the novel is based on the metaphor of mountains and valleys. I take this thematic metaphor and run with it to explore the novel in my “Mountains and Valleys” project I complete with students.

5 Activities for Teaching Esperanza Rising. 2. Explore Metaphors

Explore Metaphors

Esperanza’s grandmother, lovingly referred to as Abuelita, is known for her peppermint smell and her soft, elderly skin as well as her hobby of crocheting. During another tragedy that occurs on the vineyard, Abuelita risks her life for her crocheting materials and spends hours weaving a blanket with mountains and valleys pictures on it.

She teaches Esperanza how to crochet and before Abuelita and her are separated, she gives Esperanza the blanket. She told her that after they have lived in many mountains and valleys, they will be together again.

Metaphoric Quotes

“Look at the zigzag of the blanket. Mountains and valleys. Right now you are in the bottom of the valley and your problems loom big around you. But soon, you will be at the top of a mountain again.” (pg 51)

Esperanza takes the unfinished blanket to California and continues to crochet mountains and valleys in it. As her mother, Ramona, gets sick from a Dust Bowl disease, Esperanza lays it on her mother as she’s sick in bed and continues to weave the mountains and valleys in it. 

“Esperanza tucked the blanket around her, hoping that the color from the blanket would slowly seep into Mama’s cheeks.” (pg 177)

Classroom Activity: 

In the classroom, we explore how the mountains represent the wonderful times in Esperanza’s life and the valleys represent the tragedies, the sicknesses, and the never-ending string of hard times. Students draw ten mountains and valleys on a poster board. Students color it and for each mountain, they must explain the good event that occurred in Esperanza’s life in 3 or more sentences, along with a quote to support it. For each valley, they are to do the same thing.

Students then write an essay in which they pick two mountains and two valleys that they believe mostly influenced Esperanza’s life and support their reasoning with analysis and quotes. This project takes about a week of work in the classroom and is a wonderful way to explore the metaphor of mountains and valleys. 

This full project is in our Esperanza Rising Activities: 14 Research Projects, complete with a rubric. For an additional metaphor study, another project that uses art and symbolism to explore metaphors is included in Esperanza Rising Activities: 14 Research Projects, as well. 

Grab yours today.

3. Dynamic Characters

Esperanza undergoes a huge transformation internally as well as outwardly throughout the book. The novel starts off by introducing Esperanza as a well-loved daughter of a wealthy vineyard owner. Her father threw a fiesta for her birthday every year. He and the servants would sing underneath her window on her birthday as if she were a queen. She was gifted with porcelain dolls and ornate buffets. Then, in a matter of a couple of weeks, her world is turned upside down. She loses her father, loses her comfortable and wealthy lifestyle, and must move to a migrant farm camp in California. Her once large bed is now a dingy mattress on the floor. 

Dynamic Characters

Esperanza is a perfect example of a dynamic character. She faces life without a personal servant to cater to her. In addition, Esperanza is given chores for the first time. She is humbled beyond belief. Plus, she is forced to take on actual jobs once her mother falls ill. She physically changes her appearance, wearing old worn-out clothes, and putting her hair in a long braid, making it easier for her working life. 

Classroom Activity:

In class, we learn about dynamic and static characters. We discuss how Esperanza undergoes so many changes. We explore what specifically caused those changes. Students see how this is a dynamic character, one who undergoes a transformation of some sort.

I like to have students fold a piece of paper in half. On the outside, students draw what Esperanza originally looked like, with her ornate outfits and beautiful hair. They place quotes around the drawing to support Esperanza’s original identity. Then, students lift the paper up and draw what Esperanza likely looks like near the end of the novel. Most drawings show weather-beaten, long, braided hair, old clothes, and maybe even some wrinkles. The students write text-based evidence around the picture to support this new Esperanza.

4. Historical Context

Some of my favorite novels are historical fiction. As an English and History teacher, I love being able to merge the two concepts in books. If I can emphasize a historical event in a novel, I feel like I can hit two birds with one stone.

Esperanza Rising takes place in the 1930s, smack in the middle of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl era. Esperanza and her mother take jobs as migrant workers in California but quickly face discrimination for being of Mexican heritage. The pair faced discrimination when hundreds of Oklahoma residents move to California looking for work due to the Dust Bowl.

Comparison to Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse

I have often used excerpts from the Newberry medal-winning book, Out of the Dust, by Karen Hesse. The novel, Out of the Dust, tells the perspective of those living in the Midwest during the Dust Bowl and how hard their plight was, as well. 

Esperanza and her friends face the idea of protesting to gain better wages as Oklahoma residents come in and work for less money. When some of the characters, like Marta, stage protests and uprisings, then Repatriation comes into play. The US government displaced thousands of Mexicans, even legal Mexican-Americans during this time.

The Mexican Revolution was a period in history when the working class rebelled because their land was stolen from them. Esperanza’s father was killed by bandits as a result of tensions between poor working-class families and wealthy landowners in Mexico. Marta’s father was killed during the Mexican Revolution. 

Historical Context

Before reading the book, we learn about the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Repatriation, and even the Mexican Revolution. We do this through nonfiction passages and articles, social studies textbook excerpts, video clips, and discussion.

By exploring the historical context, students can see the material come to life. They are able to connect more to historical times as they place a face, albeit fictional, within the pages of their history textbook.

Classroom Activity:

I like to have students create a timeline of the actual historical events that occurred during the fictional novel. This gives the students more of a personal connection to the story. Plus, they can see how different true historical events can intertwine with each other.

Students can choose a topic in history to learn more about from the novel and display their findings through a quote and research project. This is a basic project any teacher can implement. Students pick a historical topic that acts as a setting in the book and pull around 10 quotes from the novel that show this setting. Next, students connect the quote to the setting and to a real historical fact through pictures and explanations. Students display the quote, historical fact, and explanation in a type of spiderweb map either on a posterboard or an online presentation. 

To explore the history behind the novel in a full project, grab the Esperanza Rising Activities: 14 Research Projects. Students can choose from 14 historical topics intertwined with the setting. This specific history project contains guidelines for students to make a history presentation and write an essay. A full rubric included with many topics.

Grab yours today.

5. Types of Conflict

A theme of Esperanza Rising is overcoming conflicts. We explore types of conflict in Esperanza Rising. With so many tragedies, mountains, and valleys, conflicts abound all throughout the book. Between Esperanza’s inner conflict of facing grief head-on to her outer conflict with her long-time best friend, students have a plethora of conflicts to explore.

5 Activities for Teaching Esperanza Rising. 5. Types of Conflict

Types of Conflict

A character vs character conflict we delve into deals with Esperanza and her best friend. For example, Esperanza has been friends with her servant’s son, Miguel, since she was very young. Some even ponder if they would marry one day. However, Esperanza even admits that “In Mexico, we stand on different sides of the river.” (pg 37). This upsets Miguel as he is a servant’s son and she is wealthy, and this creates conflict. 

The conflict comes up again on page 223. Esperanza is frustrated because Miguel’s life has not gotten better in America as he originally planned. Esperanza yells, “Are you standing on the other side of the river? No! You are still a peasant!” 

Esperanza faces numerous internal conflicts. Two of the largest conflicts are the grief of losing her father and of the possibility of losing her mother. She has to gather courage, grit, and determination to go to work. She must earn money to pay for her mother’s medical bills.

Classroom Activities:

We learn the numerous types of conflict present and explore how the conflicts propel the novel through various writing assignments.

I have found it best to try to have students write a reading response every class period. I want my students to write every English class if possible. Quick, one-paragraph responses are an efficient method to accomplish this. I like to continually explore the various types of conflict throughout the whole novel through the one-paragraph writing responses. 

Writing short responses to explore conflict is a wonderful way to meet many standards.

FREE EDITABLE Google Slides Esperanza Rising

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5 Bonus Lesson Ideas:

1. Cooking Lesson Ideas

Project-based learning is a hands-on educational approach in which the student leads their learning. What better way to incorporate culture and project-based learning than to make some of the dishes mentioned in Esperanza Rising? Make the reading experience even more immersive by engaging in a cooking activity inspired by the book. Esperanza Rising incorporates food not only in each chapter title, but the food is significant to the story.

Cooking, especially for this novel, is a project-based learning activity that is quite hands-on and incorporates many standards. It allows the reader to connect to the deep theme of food. Food is crucial to the characters’ culture. Oftentimes, the dishes show when they are in plenty and when they are lacking. Cooking is how they bond. The food dishes are also a comfort to Esperanza as everything else is changing around her. 

Classroom Activity:

Perhaps your school has a usable kitchen. Maybe you can create a mini one in your classroom with a hot plate and crockpot. (I’ve done this when teaching plenty of times. From exploring Greek food while reading The Odyssey to cooking colonial dishes in history!) Esperanza Rising mentions a variety of food dishes, from almond flan to fruit salad.

Choose a few traditional Mexican dishes mentioned in the story, such as tamales or enchiladas, and involve your students in the preparation process. They can help with measuring ingredients, mixing, and even decorating the final dish. As you cook together, discuss the cultural significance of the dishes and their connection to the story. This activity not only introduces your kids to new flavors and culinary techniques but also promotes cultural appreciation and teamwork while connecting with the novel.

Two recipes and thought-provoking questions are included in Esperanza Rising Activities: 14 Research Projects

Grab yours today.

2. Dramatic Reading Lesson Ideas

Esperanza Rising is full of dramatic scenes and beautifully written lines that the characters speak. I have always wanted this novel to be made into a movie. (If you’re a movie exec reading this, please do so!) This book would be a wonderful play as well. Take advantage of this amazing storyline by incorporating reader’s theater, playwriting, and acting into a classroom activity. 

Classroom Activity:

Organize a mini-play or storytelling session based on the book to bring the story of Esperanza Rising to life through dramatic reading.  Assign specific scenes to groups of students. Perhaps a group of students can reenact the scene in which Ramona meets the lady with the chickens on the train. Another scene could be when Miguel and his family present Esperanza with her father’s roses. 

Students work together in their groups on their specific scene, assigning roles, writing a basic script based on the book, and then acting out the scene. Students can create props and costumes to enhance the experience. Take it a step further and have them record their scene.

This activity promotes public speaking skills, fluency, writing, creativity, and teamwork. It also allows your kids to explore different perspectives by stepping into the shoes of the characters they play.

3. Perspectives Lesson Ideas

Speaking of perspectives, Esperanza Rising is written in the third person point of view. So many events occur in the story to various characters that leave a lot of room for character perspective exploration. As I read this novel, I immediately sympathized with Ramona, the mother. Having lost her husband and then her stability, next her whole life, and being faced with a choice between marrying a man she didn’t love but keeping riches, or rags but being free…what a decision! From thinking about what Esperanza must be feeling or even Miguel and how his dreams of working on trains were frustrated due to the Great Depression. Perspective exploration allows students to connect deeply to the story.

Classroom Activity:

A writing activity for Esperanza Rising incorporates using daily journal prompts to engage students in perspective exploration. Journaling is a powerful activity that allows kids to express what they believe a character’s thoughts and feelings could be as various events happen. Provide students with journal prompts related to resilience, family, friendship, and gratitude, and have them pick a character’s perspective to write about surrounding that theme. For instance, students can express the theme of resilience by writing from Ramona’s perspective, or the theme of friendship by writing through Isabel’s perspective.  

Take it a step further and students can write about how they personally relate to a character’s journey, the challenges they face, and the lessons they take away from the book, which allows for further perspective connection. This activity promotes self-reflection, empathy, and emotional intelligence. It also helps them develop their writing skills and encourages them to engage with literature on a deeper level.

For further perspective writing graphic organizers, grab Esperanza Rising Activities: 14 Research Projects.

Grab yours today.

4. Character Analysis Lesson Ideas

The characters in Esperanza Rising are richly developed, and this provides ample opportunities for analysis and exploration. From Esperanza herself to Marta, the young immigrant, who is fighting for justice and better working conditions…so many of the characters have varying layers to them. Pam Munoz Ryan doesn’t just focus on the main character. She takes time to explore the depth of each one. 

Classroom Activity:

Have your students create a character profile for each of the characters. This activity allows them to delve deeper into her thoughts, feelings, and motivations throughout the story. Start by discussing each character’s traits and experiences, such as Esperanza’s privileged upbringing in Mexico and her transformation as she faces adversity in the United States.

Encourage your students to use descriptive language and include specific examples from the book to support their analysis. They can create a visual representation of each character by drawing a portrait or using online tools to design an image. This activity not only enhances their understanding of the story but also develops their analytical and creative skills and even technology skills.

For a full 17-page character analysis booklet, in which students find text-based evidence, explore direct and indirect quotes, and compare and contrast characters, grab Esperanza Rising 14 Research Projects. 

Grab yours today.

5. Community Service Lesson Ideas

Esperanza Rising highlights the challenges faced by immigrants and migrant workers. From the journey of relocating to securing legal status, from finding an adequate job to the challenge of making enough money to survive, students learn all about the plight of immigrants in the 1930s. Yet, immigration and migrant worker struggles are still present to this day. 

Classroom Activity:

Engage students in a meaningful service project related to immigration or migrant rights or that relates to these issues. This is project based learning at its core as students work cooperatively to solve a real-world problem. Research local organizations or initiatives that support immigrants or advocate for migrant rights.

Your students can organize a food drive or a supplies drive for a shelter, or participate in a fundraising event. Pajama drives and Christmas toy drives are also helpful. Invite a migrant rights lawyer to come to speak to your class. Have students learn that these struggles are still very present to this day.  This activity promotes empathy, social responsibility, and active citizenship. It allows your kids to apply the lessons learned from Esperanza’s story to real-life situations and make a positive impact in their community.


If you teach upper elementary to middle school and have not read or taught Esperanza Rising, by Pam Munoz Ryan, I highly encourage you to do so. This novel is filled with symbolism, metaphors, dynamic characters, historical context, numerous types of conflicts, and so many other opportunities for hands-on learning. Esperanza Rising provides a treasure trove of opportunities for fun and educational activities for kids. Also, this is simply a wonderful book of transformation, courage, and hope. Esperanza, in Spanish, means “hope,” and hope truly does rise throughout this novel as you read it. Every class I’ve ever taught has enjoyed Esperanza Rising, and I know you will too. 

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