History Lessons

About a week ago I stood in my class working through the citizenship portion of my lesson plan. Now, for most of us, citizenship sounds like something we’d never have to worry about, but for my students, it’s sometimes as close as a phone call with a date and time for an interview in Memphis.

Can you imagine anything scarier than going to an immigration interview where you’ll be asked to answer 10 questions about a country in order to prove you should become a citizen?

I’m sure there are scarier things. I can imagine them, and you can, too. But when it comes down to the wire, these students of mine are telling me how afraid they are of this citizenship interview simply because it is a daunting task. And, well, I can see why.

If you don’t know anything about the interview portion of the citizenship process, don’t worry. Neither did I until I landed this job. Every person who goes through citizenship in the U.S. has an interview where they are evaluated on their English speaking skills as well as their listening. Now, you might expect that to be easy, but what kinds of questions are you anticipating? Not nice questions about the weather.

The interview features questions about the application a person submitted what must feel like ages ago by the time they get into that room. The application is multiple pages long and asks tough questions of a non-English speaker. So by the time they sit before an immigration official, they have to recall information they put down on paper, sometimes with a lawyer for accuracy, months prior about their backgrounds and their families.

But I digress.

The citizenship lesson I was teaching was about the actual questions that each applicant is required to study in order to pass the test for citizenship. Applicants are given a test booklet with 100 possible questions they have to study. These questions range over a number of topics from history, government, geography, and U.S. symbols. The thing is, if you go to an immigration officer, you have no idea what questions you’ll be asked, and you only get 10 questions to answer.

Applicants have to answer 6 questions correctly to pass the test.

As I was saying, I was going over as many questions as possible in class last week when I stumbled upon a topic that apparently left my students a tad confused. We were discussing federal holidays when I explained Columbus Day to my students. Admittedly, most Americans don’t care for the holiday as it’s just another mark on a calendar, a day for their kids to come home from school with strange cardboard hats and colored drawings of old-fashioned people in boats. But this holiday struck something in my students, and we had a lively discussion around one question.

If there were already people living in the U.S. when Columbus came here, why do we celebrate him as discovering the country?

Ohhh.

I had to pin down the real question here before I could answer it, but it honestly came back to the question of colonization. The U.S. wasn’t just a hunk of land with no habitation. So why did it matter that it was discovered by some strange European and subsequently explored and colonized by other strange Europeans?

And this was where our conversation led us. We discussed Columbus’ travels and how most Europeans had no concept of the world as including these other pieces of land we now know as North America and South America. We discussed the discoveries from the perspectives of Europeans expecting Columbus to sail west and find the other side of the world containing China instead of these strange new lands.

And I rediscovered how fun it is to teach these concepts to people who have no exposure to our version of history, no exposure to our education system, no exposure to what makes this side of history so interesting!

I say that not to say that history isn’t amazing around the world. I have always been fascinated by world history. I love learning about history in different countries. But to teach something that I’ve always found so simple and such a normal part of American history to people who have never really had this education is exciting. To see them understand this discovery for what it is, what it meant in its time, was something that really made my day.

And yet, I heard from my husband this morning that contestants on a local radio show couldn’t figure out how old the country would be in 20 years. The tie answer was 450 years.

How easily we forget our history.

In fact, the answer would be 250 years.

From 1776, the year we declared independence to 2026. We are a young country, are we not?

And here I sit, enjoying my students and their curious questions about our history, our language, and their desire to understand. This is why I wanted to get out of the cube.

– RaeNezL

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