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?


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


Things My Students Have Shown Me

I haven’t even been teaching a full year yet, and my students have shown me a world of amazing things. I don’t get to see the world from a child’s perspective like elementary school teachers. I don’t open young minds and help students learn what they’d like to do with their lives like middle and high school teachers. I don’t offer students the ability to learn in unique ways and communicate in different ways from regular people like special education teachers.

Most of the time, I do the learning.

Because I teach English as a Second Language, I spend a lot of my time learning. If I’m not studying up on my history, civics, and grammar in order to teach a new lesson, I’m learning about different countries and cultures straight from the students in my classes.

I know other teachers in different classroom settings learn, too. It wouldn’t be teaching if there wasn’t a certain level of continuing education that was required of educators. But sometimes I learn things from these adult students that I would love to share with even a fraction of the rest of the world.

If I could share it with even a small amount of my fellow Americans, I would consider that to be an honor.

Why? Because I’m teaching immigrant adults who have had some intense experiences upon coming to the United States of America, and they work every bit as hard–and sometimes harder–as American citizens to find a sense of belonging, a little bit of income, and a place to call home.

I won’t make the controversial statements I’d like to make in this post. I will share some of the lighthearted moments that I think are worth sharing.

Things My Students Have Shown Me:

  • Hospitality isn’t just a Southern notion. In the US, we like to think that the Southern states have a corner on hospitality. We have that Southern hospitality down, right? Well, I have some students who could teach us a thing or two about hospitality. These students band together and offer gifts and food at the drop of a hat. They invite me to their homes and are warmer than some of my fellow Southerners have ever been.
  • Giving the teacher an apple is old hat. We grew up with ideas about presenting teachers with apples. We have printable gifts featuring apples for our teachers. All the cards for teachers are apple-themed. My students? They give me everything but apples. How about chocolate-covered espresso beans from Trader Joe’s or bringing in homemade dolma (stuffed grape leaves)? I have one student who brings me Biscoff cookies regularly despite my telling her it’s not necessary. When I tried to explain this to her, she took it as an insult, and I stopped immediately.
  • Charm can come in all races. This never ceases to amaze me. I don’t consider myself to be a person who’s easy to impress in the sense that I’m easily flattered. Unless you’re my husband, you aren’t going to simply flatter me and get your way. But when I started teaching, I was highly entertained by all the students suddenly trying to charm their way out of homework or doing writing exercises in my class. Most of these were the younger men, but they came in all shapes, sizes, and races. I had to laugh or else I’d be too mad to teach.
  • A little change goes a long way. This may sound vague, and it is. However, the little change I’m referring to is in the way I wore my hair. Yep, that little. I’m typically a dry-and-straighten my hair kind of girl. I’ll wear my hair straight and down or pulled into a ponytail. The first time I changed this and scrunched it into a bit of curls, the reaction was instant. I had the attention of most of my (male) students and had other students doing double-takes and throwing me compliments in the hall. Ever since then, I get compliments every single time I wear my hair that way and told I should always wear it that way. I’m always surprised how quick they are to voice their thoughts about that.
  • If you grew up as a US citizen, you should feel very, very blessed. It doesn’t matter what country they come from, almost every student I’ve met has told me they feel lucky to be here in the US. They’ve been here a short time or a long time, but they’re excited to have the opportunities available to them in this country, opportunities most of us know nothing about. They know all about these opportunities and are happy to remind me that most Americans take these opportunities for granted. When I hear that, I remind myself to be thankful again and again.

These are just a few of the things my students have shown me. I think it’s special to have the opportunity to see the world from their eyes. I’ve learned so many things just from listening to them talk about their lives.

If anyone reads this and wants to tell me that these students have no business being in the US, then I suppose part of me can understand the frustration. But I also know that I have students who survived the horrific torture of citizens in Cambodia, who escaped war-torn parts of Africa, who left parts of China for university scholar programs here, who moved from El Salvador with no hopes of visiting home until they can achieve citizenship, who moved here from Guatemala only to be stalked and almost killed by crazy ex-boyfriends, who came from Iraq and Saudi Arabia only to be cursed and flipped off and told they are terrorists.

It must be hard to live in a country where freedom of speech allows us such liberties.

These are the things my students have shown me.

– RaeNezL