Shauni Roberts: Biden’s inauguration helps immigrants understand our nation

ESL students were touched by the ceremonies even if they didn’t understand all the words.

(Patrick Semansky | AP photo) American poet Amanda Gorman reads a poem during the 59th Presidential Inauguration at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021.

Four years ago, when I posted on Facebook about watching the presidential inauguration with my adult English as a second language students, someone asked in the comments, “Is showing an inauguration that they have no chance of understanding useful?”
This caught me off guard because I’m not used to having my curricular decisions challenged in that way (not even by my boss, who frequently reminds us that we need to be incorporating civics into our lessons).
I replied that I thought it was important for people working toward citizenship to witness the peaceful transition of power and to be able to recognize our elected officials. But, to be honest, given the negative emotions that inauguration sparked (primarily fear) I wasn’t really sure at the time if I had made the right decision, either.
Wednesday morning, as I was planning my lessons around President Joe Biden’s inauguration, that question popped into my mind again. I’m currently teaching students who are at a higher ESL level than my students from four years ago, but still, I knew they would only understand about 50% of the words spoken.
I thought back to nearly two weeks ago, when I was reading a news article with my students about the insurrection at the Capitol. I quickly realized how little they knew about American politics, and ended up spending most of the lesson explaining the basics of the three branches of government.
I asked the students if they knew about the structure of government in their home countries, and one young woman from Rwanda responded that in her country politics was the domain of men and that it was women’s responsibility to cook, clean and take care of the children. Some of my female students from other countries concurred, and admitted that they didn’t know much about politics either, whether in their home countries or in the U.S.
Fast forward to Inauguration Day. My students all came to class knowing that we’d be watching the inauguration, and they were excited about it. After the Pledge of Allegiance, some of the students asked for the words so that they could practice and memorize them. A few minutes later, when Jennifer Lopez interrupted her song to recite part of the pledge in Spanish, I made eye contact with a student from El Salvador who had just asked for the words, and the tears started flowing.

When Amanda Gorman was reciting her poem, I noticed that my student from Rwanda had turned off her camera. After the poem, I asked her if she was OK, and she said, “Yes, that poem just made me cry and cry.”
She acknowledged that she only understood about 20% of it, and so I imagine that a lot of her emotional response came from seeing someone who looks like her (and is the same age as her) front and center at such a momentous ceremony.
At the end of class, several students expressed that they wanted to read and study at least one element of the inauguration — the pledge, the national anthem, Amanda Gorman’s poem, or one of the speeches. Each and every one of my students saw themselves on that stage at one point or another and came away feeling that they belong in this country and that they are welcome here.
They were also inspired to learn more about how our government works, and to participate in democracy by working toward citizenship and voting. Was it worth it to spend an entire 2.5 hour class period on an inauguration my students might not entirely understand?
Now that it’s over, I can respond, “Absolutely, unequivocally, yes.”

Shauni Roberts

Shauni Roberts is an English as a second language teacher in the Granite School District.
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