New Program Uses Art to Prepare for Citizenship Test

The process for a foreign national to become a U.S. citizen can be quite daunting. There are various requirements that must be met, but one that can be particularly stressful for applicants is the oral exam they must pass that tests one’s knowledge of U.S. civics and history. A new program launched in New York City is taking an unorthodox approach to tutoring applicants on mastering the questions on this exam – by incorporating art into its lesson plan.

The Citizenship Project is a free, 32-hour, interactive program for green card holders preparing to apply for naturalization. It was launched in July by the New York Historical Society; a cultural institution in the heart of the city, devoted to fostering research and presenting historical art exhibitions. The program combines traditional classroom instruction with walk-throughs of the Historical Society’s art gallery. Students observe and discuss paintings that pertain to American history in preparation for the oral examination portion of their citizenship application. The goal of the program is to assist at least 1,000 people in preparing for the citizenship exam.

Samantha Rijkers, manager of the Citizenship Project, developed the program’s curriculum and explained the visual approach to learning U.S. history in a recent interview with the New York Times. “We can easily spend ten or even twenty minutes just looking at one painting. So, to prepare for test questions about the Declaration of Independence and Independence Day, students observed the painting Pulling Down the Statue of King George III, New York City by Johannes Adam Simon Ortel.” Ya Yun Teng is originally from Taiwan and just completed the program. She told the New York Times that the unconventional teaching techniques gave her confidence as she waits to take her citizenship test. “The way we learn about history here, we internalize it because you’re able to touch something or you’re able to look at something so it’s not just random information that you force yourself to remember.” [See An Artistic Approach to Becoming a U.S. Citizen, by Christoph Fuhrmans and Scott Blumenthal, The New York Times, 25.Oct.2017.]

While the idea for the Citizenship Project had been percolating within the New York Historical Society since 2004, the program was fast tracked from idea to reality in January 2017, after President Trump issued his first travel ban. The ban, which has since been blocked by various federal courts, was widely criticized as an unnecessary attack on immigrants, including green card holders who had lived legally in the United States for years but suddenly found themselves fearful of being unable to enter the country. By offering an effective way to prepare green card holders for the citizenship test, the program’s founders hope that more permanent residents will apply for naturalization amidst a political era where they are viewed with fear and mistrust. But considering that data shows the majority of green card holders will pass the citizenship test, while a third of U.S. born citizens will fail it, the current culture of hostility towards immigrants seems tragically ironic. [See Study: One in Three Americans Fails Naturalization Civics Test, by Brian Greene, USA News, 30.April.2012.]

 

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