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Citizenship instructors get tips on how to teach

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Sheryl Buchanan laughed as she went through class material during a seminar held by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service to help instructors teach immigrants.

By Globe Staff 

Jane Leary Levesque stood up, fist in the air, showing her classmates the best way to remember the First Amendment.

“Rapps!” the attorneyand professorsaid to a room full of citizenship instructors who were, on this day, students. Then she pointed to each of her knuckles and continued: “Religion. Assembly. Press. Petition. Speech.”

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It was one of several mnemonic devices Levesque has used for years to teach US history and civics to immigrants going through the naturalization process. She shared her trick recently with about 50 fellow instructors participating in a daylong seminar at the John F. Kennedy Federal Building in Government Center.

“All of my students remember it,” she said. “They see me 10 years later, they say, ‘RAPPS!’ ”

The 10-year-old instructor-training program, hosted by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, enhances the skills needed to teach American history and government to immigrants seeking citizenship, but content is just a fraction of what these teachers must convey to students, most of whom are still learning English.

While ensuring students know such things as the principles of American democracy — as in the Constitution and Bill of Rights – instructors must also help students master English well enough to fill out government forms and follow instructions during the naturalization interview.

For example, the inability to understand security procedures upon entering a federal building — belts off, laptops out of bags — is likely to raise red flags, officials said.

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The program has educated more than 13,000 instructors since its beginning in 2007, when the naturalization test was redesigned, federal officials said. Courses are held throughout the country but tend to take place in cities with large numbers of immigrants seeking citizenship like Boston, which hosts a naturalization ceremony at Faneuil Hall almost every week. Massachusetts is among the top 10 states with the highest percentage of naturalized citizens in the country, according to federal data.

At first, Patching said, the classes were mostly geared toward the technicalities of the test, such as scoring rubrics. But the courses have evolved to merge teaching the tenets of citizenship with English grammatical rules.

“Now,” she said, “it’s about capacity building and preparing these people for citizenship.”

Two of the teachers who sat in the June 15 session were students taking citizenship classes not long ago, including one who was naturalized last weekwith more than 2,700 other immigrants at the Hynes Convention Center.

Given the current administration’s shift in immigration policies, with a priority placed on enforcement immigration laws and stopping the flow of unauthorized immigrants, Patching said she doesn’t foresee a threat to the program.

“We’re already planning for next year,” she said.

The instructors attending last week’s session said they’ve seen an increased interest in citizenship classes since President Trump took office, with immigrants who are in the country legally but never before thought much about becoming citizens now rushing to inquire about the process.

“A lot of people are trying to become US citizens; people are afraid,” said Nadine Dorcena, who works with the Haitian community at Catholic Charities of Boston. “We had people who have been here so long, and they never tried. They were never interested, but now . . . they are interested.”

Dorcena wants to create a citizenship program at the organization’s Columbia Road facility, which she said has a waiting list of more than 100 people. She was in the class to learn everything from how to pick textbooks to how to set up a classroom.

It is key for teachers to encourage students to do most of the talking while in class, said Kelton Williams, education program specialist for the Office of Citizenship. He also cautioned against rushing to fill awkward silences when students struggle with an answer.

It takes a native English speaker seven seconds to answer a question, Williams told the group.

“So if you have a non-native speaker, you’re obviously going to have a lot longer wait time,” he said. “Give them time to think. It feels like an eternity, but you have to be patient and let them answer.”

KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF

Gonzalo Basualdo, Andrea Clarke, and Nestor Grullon (above) worked on class material during a seminar held by the US Citizenship and Immigration Service to help adult educators and representatives from immigrant-serving organizations who help immigrants prepare them for the citizenship and naturalization process.

Williams also suggested practical tips for setting up classes, stressing the importance of creating a routine.

“If students come in every day and they don’t know where to go or where to hand things in, that’s going to affect their confidence,” he said. “Unlike K-12, where teachers have their own classrooms, a lot of you are working in non-traditional spaces — cafeterias, church basements. You help with confidence when you set it up he same way every day.”

When it was time to put theory into action, the class splintered into small groups to create hands-on activities.

Estrada’s group wrote down common commands on flash cards, things like, “Please be seated,” and, “Please follow me,” and used corresponding pictures to explain part of the interview process.

Sheryl Buchanan sat with Dorcena trying to perfect a game that involved rolling dice with “how” and “when” and “what” and “where” printed on the sides. Which question the dice lands on corresponds to a question from the naturalization test.

Before they began working on their game rules, the conversation drifted to the organizations they work for and the communities they serve.

Buchanan was the veteran, having taught citizenship classes for several years to African, Asian, and Hispanic immigrants at Genesis Center, a nonprofit in Providence. And she said she, too, has seen an increase in the number of people inquiring about becoming citizens since Trump took office.

Her program is at capacity, 32, with a waiting list of 15.

“It really hurts my heart when we have to turn people away,” she said. “People are motivated.”

KEITH BEDFORD/GLOBE STAFF

A student looked over class material.


Akilah Johnson can be reached at akilah.johnson@globe.com
Follow her on Twitter @akjohnson1922.