Path to Citizenship

Walking in Another Person's Shoes

by Natalie Stapert, Humanities Coordinator

Lowell’s 3rd graders know: 1965 was a big year. Not just because it was the year Lowell opened its doors, but because it was the year that Congress passed the Immigration and Nationality Act. This landmark legislation flowed from the Civil Rights Movement and overturned a system of immigration quotas favoring northern Europeans and barring Africans and Asians from entering the United States. Although many people at the time said that its impact would be minimal, cultural diversity that exists in the US today would not have been possible without the Immigration and Nationality Act.
The experiences of immigrants after 1965 provide a wealth of opportunities for 3rd graders to explore geography, economics, civics, and history through an integrated and inquiry-based approach, which puts students’ questions at the center of the curriculum and places just as much value on research skills as on knowledge and understanding of the content. At the beginning of the unit, 3rd graders’ questions included: Where do American immigrants come from? What was life like where they were born? Why do people decide to immigrate? What is the journey like?

Later in the unit, students had some of the same questions that immigrants have about the US. What does it mean to become an American citizen? What are the rights and responsibilities of citizenship? Why do Americans have different attitudes towards immigrants and immigration?

Primary Source Research

Wanting our students to access a diverse array of first-hand information, we collected more than twenty immigrant stories from StoryCorps and the Library of Congress, reflecting the experiences of recent immigrants from Africa, Asia, Central and South America, Europe, and the Middle East. The students chose stories that spoke to them and imagined themselves in the immigrants’ shoes.

These excerpts from the 3rd graders’ letters “home” illustrate their growing understanding of the bittersweet experience of US immigration.
• Duwayne from Jamaica: “I’m not used to American food. There’s no oxtail, fish with a head, or jerk chicken.
  There’s burgers, fries, and hot dogs. Those are good.”
• Francis from Columbia: “Some parents didn’t let their kids play with us at first because we are different.”
• Sasha from Russia: “I was nervous about driving.”
• Bighash from Iran: “I have freedom of choice, more opportunities, and people are friendly.”
• Guango from China: “When I get enough money, I am going to open a Chinese store that sells Chinese furniture.”
• Rafael from Brazil: “I still celebrate Brazilian traditions like carnival.”
• Miriam from Peru: “I hope you can come visit me here.”

After successfully transitioning to life in the US, students were presented with the question of whether or not to apply for US citizenship. In order to make an informed decision, they investigated the rights and responsibilities of citizens. Their research uncovered that American citizens have:
• the “freedom to worship as you wish,”
• the “right to vote in elections,”
• the “right to run for office,”
• the “right to a prompt, fair trial,”
• the “responsibility to pay taxes honestly and on time,”
• the “responsibility to respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others,” and
• the “responsibility to stay informed on issues in the community.”

APPLYING FOR Citizenship

After researching, the 3rd graders held a forum to discuss the question of applying for citizenship. Although the students valued the rights and responsibilities offered to US citizens, many had reservations about giving up their natural citizenship. They expressed sadness at the idea of renouncing their country of birth and wanted to know whether dual citizenship was available or whether there were circumstances under which they could reverse their citizenship at a later time. This discussion allowed students to “recognize that people’s multiple identities interact and create unique and complex individuals,” a main standard from the Teaching Tolerance Anti-Bias Identity Strand.

Although they were challenged by the magnitude of the decision, each 3rd grader this year decided to apply for US citizenship. They completed citizenship applications, INS interviews, and a citizenship test. Finally, they participated in a virtual naturalization ceremony during which they honored their home countries, took the oath of citizenship, and recited the pledge of allegiance.

The 3rd grade naturalization ceremony is more than an educational simulation. It is a rite of passage that honors the diversity of the American experience, sets forth the highest ideals of active citizenship, and authentically engages students in a social issue as controversial now as it was one hundred and fifty years ago. It welcomes students into a rigorous three-year study of the American story in Primary School that flows from our earliest ancestors to the nation we are today and teaches students to seek multiple perspectives, grapple with complexity, and agitate for change.
Lowell School is a private PK-8th grade school located in NW Washington, DC. At Lowell students gain the knowledge, skills, and social-emotional literacy to be the bold leaders and creative problem solvers our world needs.