The Museum of the American Revolution uses its own artifacts and exhibits to transform the way that future American citizens take one of the most important tests of their lives: the oral civics exam.
A 2018 survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation found that almost two-thirds of Americans would fail the civics test portion of the required naturalization interview, part of the extensive process that is becoming a U.S. citizen. During this civics test, interviewers randomly select 10 out of 100 potential questions. Test takers must answer six out of 10 questions correctly in order to pass.
Civics and history educator Dana Devon was immediately inspired by the idea of teaching a course in the museum to both help prospective citizens prepare to ace their exam and to make the questions themselves feel more impactful. This course, the Citizenship Initiative, is in its second year with an upcoming Spring session that runs March 9-April 1 with eight sessions that meet on Monday and Wednesday evenings. The course is completely free, and the only requirement is having intermediate English proficiency, as that is a necessary part of the citizenship test as a whole.
Devon sees a dramatic shift from the students from just the first class to the second, as students go from being a little intimidated or nervous to absorbed in the museum’s teachings.
“By the second class, there’s an aha moment,” says Devon. “It’s a feeling of, ‘I know what I’m doing here, I know why I’m coming here in the evenings after working all day, I will not just memorize this– I’ll understand it.’ They become increasingly more fluent in historical literacy as they move through the class.”
A very specific section of the museum is the focal point for the museum’s inclusivity efforts: a wall of photographs. These are portraits of people who were alive at some point during the Revolutionary War and lived until the age of photography. This wall shows the diversity of Americans who were alive before 1783, and mirrors at the end of the hallway show the text “meet the future of the American Revolution.” For students in the Citizenship Initiative, this is a powerful reminder that they are part of the future.
“There are many understandable historical reasons why there are many communities that would see the museum, this building that’s two blocks from Independence Hall and not see this as relevant or reflecting their story,” says Museum President and CEO Dr. R. Scott Stephenson. “This is an extension of us trying to get the word out that this is not your grandparents’ museum about the American Revolution. This course reaches communities that wouldn’t necessarily see this place as one that is relevant to them.”
So far, four-course graduates have become naturalized citizens, including Juan Giarrizzo. Giarrizzo officially became a citizen in September 2019, and taking the course at the museum played an essential role in helping him take those final steps.
“They are really trying to train the new generation of Americans, or new citizens who have fresh takes on the core values of citizenship,” says Giarrizzo, who is originally from Venezuela. “The fact that the museum was offering this course gave me the last bit of motivation to really do it.”
Devon still begins and ends the sessions in the museum’s classroom to drill the students on the 100 questions, since preparing them to pass the civics test is the main goal.
“There’s never been a constituency I’ve enjoyed teaching more than these students, and it’s because I’ve never had a group of students who view themselves as potential stakeholders,” she says.
“It’s strengthening the nation, bringing new citizens in who are both deeply rooted in this story and who can see themselves as part of it,” says Stephenson. “They may not have a relative who was in Philadelphia in 1776, but they see America as an idea and something that you can truly join.”
Learn more or sign up for the free Citizenship Initiative course by visiting amrevmuseum.org