An Artistic Approach to Becoming a U.S. Citizen – The New York Times

The New-York Historical Society uses artifacts, documents and art from the museum’s permanent collection in the Citizenship Project. Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

What does a painting of a mob pulling down a statue of King George III teach you about American history? The answer could help green card holders become United States citizens.

To become a naturalized citizen, a person has to be a green card holder, submit a 20-page application, be fingerprinted and pass an oral exam that requires deep knowledge of American history. The process can take six months or longer and costs about $700.

So when Karen Moore — a nanny from Jamaica who became a permanent resident in 2010 — applied for citizenship in January, she knew she needed help. “I didn’t know anything about New York history. I had been on the Circle Line, but that’s about all I knew,” she said with a laugh referring to the city’s sightseeing cruises.

At the suggestion of her employer, Ms. Moore became the first person to sign up for the Citizenship Project, a free class at the New-York Historical Society that helps green card holders prepare for the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization test.

Could you pass the U.S. history and government portion of the U.S.C.I.S. naturalization test?

We’ll ask you up to 10 questions; you have to get six right to pass.

The historical society’s leadership decided to take an active role in helping permanent residents become citizens after President Trump in January called for travel restrictions on Muslims entering the United States. The classes started in July, and the historical society has a goal of helping 750 to 1,000 people prepare for the citizenship exam.

The project is a 32-hour interactive program that uses artifacts, documents and art from the museum’s permanent collection and covers all the questions used in the test.

“For many of them English is not their first language and so they’re really eager to get any assistance they can to make this test easier,” said Jennifer Schantz, the historical society’s executive vice president and chief operating officer.

The historical society’s teaching methods are enhanced by using physical objects. The program is so unique that citizenship and immigration services has invited the museum to host a seminar showing other museums across the country how to establish similar programs. Students spend time at the historical society both in a classroom and also walking through the gallery, observing and discussing the paintings and objects as they pertain to American history.

New-York Historical Society

The painting above is used to illustrate two questions on the naturalization test: “When do we celebrate Independence Day?” and “When was the Declaration of Independence adopted?”

Type details you notice to learn more about the painting and the episode it depicts.

“We can easily spend 10 or even 20 minutes just looking at one painting,” said Samantha Rijkers, the manager of the Citizenship Project who developed the program’s curriculum and oversees six part-time instructors. 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.

“Some people might say I see a statue, others might make connections to protests that are going on today where people are taking down statues of Confederate soldiers,” Ms. Rijkers said. “What I think is great about our approach is that everyone can figure out the story by themselves just by looking at the painting and talking.”

Ms. Rijkers, who is from the Netherlands and moved to New York to get her master’s degree, also is a green card holder who is in the process of gaining citizenship. “My students always make fun of me that I don’t have it yet,” she said.

Preparing for the test in a class setting is one thing, but taking it in a personal interview is another. Applicants are asked up to 10 out of a possible 100 questions and must answer six correctly. While the majority of green card holders pass the test, a study in 2012 by the Center for the Study of the American Dream at Xavier University showed that one in three citizens born in the United States fail it.

“What we hear a lot is many people have family members who are American citizens and they tell us, ‘Oh, I went home and we talked about this and they had no idea,’ ” Ms. Rijkers said. “We don’t shy away from the difficult chapters in American history.”

The classes so far have included people from six different continents and 28 different countries.

“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,” said Ya Yun Teng, a digital collections coordinator at the Museum of Chinese in America who is from Taiwan and just completed the class and is waiting to take the citizenship exam. “I’m not too worried about memorizing or studying the test all the time, because all the stories or clues that I experienced during the courses will help me to remember the answers for the test.”

Ya Yun Teng, left, and Karen Moore participated in the New-York Historical Society’s citizenship program. Photographs by Celeste Sloman for The New York Times

The idea for the program had been germinating since 2004 when the historical society began hosting naturalization ceremonies, and the process was jump-started in January when President Trump issued his first travel ban. The historical society partnered with the City University of New York and received funding from the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the New York Community Trust.

The historical society already had a framework from years of teaching New York high school students.

“We realized that we actually had the tools because we have tremendous success in helping people learn civics and American history in order to pass the 11th grade regents, which is required for graduation in New York state, at least in public schools,” said Louise Mirrer, the historical society’s president and chief executive officer. “And we decided that it would be really great if we could take those tools that we knew were so effective and help people to pass the citizenship exam.”

Ms. Moore ended up being one of those people. After having completed half of the course, she passed the oral exam. “The interview was tense,” she said. In September, Ms. Moore became a United States citizen at a swearing-in ceremony in a courthouse in Downtown Brooklyn’s Cadman Plaza.

But before that happened, Ms. Moore returned, to applause, to finish the class and share her experience.

“That’s how much I loved it,” she said.

New citizens take the oath of allegiance at a naturalization ceremony held at the New-York Historical Society in September. Devin Yalkin for The New York Times

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.