I spent July 1, Canada Day, in the US and July 4th, Independence Day, in Canada. I’ve been a pretty good citizen of both my countries, but these nationalistic holidays are no big deal to me. World Refugee Day (my last post) is the day I like to celebrate. Which is odd, of course, because the 51 million refugees around the world really want freedom and independence, preferably in their home countries, but also in their host countries. I might need to start observing a two-week remembrance and celebration of the struggles that have lead to freedom, the ongoing struggles for independence, and activities that promote independence and freedom globally.
Between and since the 1st to the 4th, I have been reflecting on the efforts of learners and volunteers in Giving + Learning who are working towards citizenship. I had one volunteer in March ask to help a couple with citizenship prep rather than do language preparation because she had earned her citizenship a few years back and wanted to help others achieve that goal. The husband passed the civics exam but didn’t pass the writing exam, which requires applicants to write a sentence dictated by the tester. This task is difficult for English Language Learners, especially if the tester has a non-standard English accent–the case in Fargo right now. Apparently this citizen-to-be took this set back in stride, but his wife is anxious about her test later this month.
Another volunteer helping out a learner is not even a US citizen, but she is using this opportunity to learn more about America and contribute to the citizenry of the US. I challenge all Americans who fear immigrants and foreigners to make as many contributions to their community and country as this international student has made in under a year in Fargo. Her partner is an incredibly driven learner. She has been telling us that she signed an X for her name when she was resettled to the US because she had never been to school, had not learned to read or write. She has been attending classes steadily for 5 years; she is now a beginning reader who likes to say that the letters, "one-one" are easy, but "together–hard." Like many learners, she is great at memorizing the answers to the civics question, pretty good at reading potential test questions, but struggles to generate a sentence from dictation.
A third learner showed up at the adult learner center about a month ago. She had failed the dictation part of the test and realized she needed some immediate help with her reading and writing. She is strong orally; her accent is noticeable but slight, her comprehension in conversation seems very high. But she has been working and raising a family since arriving in Fargo, and simply hasn’t had a chance to practice reading and writing English. She is probably a high beginner, but reading and writing are visual, and moving from oral dictation to a written sentence appears to be at least an intermediate level skill. I don’t remember what sentence I had to write when I took my citizenship exam in 2011, but I remember having a brief panic attack because I didn’t realize this was going to be part of the test, and with slightly jittery nerves, I think I wrote a sentence with my best third grade penmanship that the examiner looked at, frowned, and said "okay." In other words, this simple task can be quite complex: the tester’s voice and accent are unfamiliar, the stakes are high, and test anxiety can easily set in. This learner desperately wants her citizenship for all the usual reasons–to vote, to have a passport, to have a sense of belonging–but she also wants to be eligible to sponsor her mother’s resettlement. Citizenship as the first step towards family reunification is a huge motivator for many learners with fragmented families.
As you can see, the dictation and writing part of the exam is the real hurdle. Everyone knows about the 100 civics questions. The USCIS has all sorts of materials to support studying for the civics exam: booklets, online test prep, apps, flash cards. They also sort of support the reading and writing component, but not well. Word lists, more flash cards that don’t help with listening unless one has a partner, and videos that take applicants through the process, but don’t simulate the test.
The third learner’s volunteer is a first-time Giving + Learning volunteer, but an experienced language learner. She almost immediately recognized the need for audio files that her partner could listen to outside of their sessions. The volunteer then hit the almost-brick wall that can be the technology disconnect between New Americans and mainstream Americans. Giving + Learning volunteers almost all have iPhones; New Americans have Samsung Galaxies, if they have a smart phone. The iPhone has a built in recorder, the Galaxy doesn’t, so my mentor couldn’t simply dictate sentences into the Galaxy. Her next try to was to record on her iPhone, and email it to the learner; the learner doesn’t have an email account. She did call her teenage son, who does, so the plan would be to email him the files and he would figure out how to get the files onto his mother’s phone.
I’m not sure how that is going, but the volunteer shared with me three audio files that she and an experienced Giving + Learning volunteer made the next day. The experienced volunteer has a strong theater background and does professional voice work, so within 24 hours of meeting a learner, the two volunteers combined forces to produce a very high quality learning tool that the USCIS seems not to have thought to produce in years and years of supporting the test. And of course they are willing to share it with all learners and mentors; they would undoubtedly share it with USCIS if the feds will take it.
So now I know what to celebrate on independence day, whether its Canada’s and Somalia’s (July 1), America’s (July 4th), South Sudan’s (July 9th) (read Deb Dawson’s reflection on "Independence and Freedom" there), or the many other national holidays that are recognized in and around this time. I need to celebrate the ongoing efforts to attain freedom, independence, and citizenship. I need to celebrate the perseverance of learners and ingenuity of volunteers. And I need to use this time to recruit other learners and volunteers to this amazing process: one that is educational for all involved, inspiring, and life changing.
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