“You had me at hello”: Citizenship lessons from Jerry Maguire and Voices of Freedom

Bill Bliss Bill Bliss

“You had me at hello”: Citizenship lessons from Jerry Maguire and Voices of Freedom

In one of the more memorable scenes in the film Jerry Maguire, sports agent Jerry (Tom Cruise) flies home to reconcile with his wife, Dorothy (Renee Zellweger), who had broken up with him. Jerry professes his love for her and utters the now-famous line, “You complete me.” Dorothy responds with the equally famous line, “You had me at hello.” Applicants preparing to take the U.S. citizenship test could take a cue from Dorothy’s line, since in an important way the English exam for naturalization starts from the first hello!

Civics, Reading, Writing, and Speaking
We usually think of the citizenship exam as the 100 official test questions that cover U.S. government, history, geography, and other topics. We also tend to focus on the reading and writing requirements, which involve reading a question aloud and writing a sentence from dictation. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has done an admirable job of revising the 100 questions and standardizing the reading and writing tasks, with an impressive amount of input from educators, immigration advocates, and other stakeholders. However, one of the most important parts of the exam – the English speaking test – remains fairly subjective since the applicant is evaluated on the ability to handle the give-and-take of the interview and answer questions about the candidate’s N-400 citizenship application form.

The English Test Might Begin in the Waiting Area

As students learn in the Voices of Freedom citizenship text, the English test might begin from the first hello in the waiting area when the USCIS officer calls the applicant’s name. As the applicant and the USCIS officer walk from the waiting area to the office where the interview will occur, it is common for the officer to engage in simple “small talk” conversation on topics such as the weather or how the student arrived at the office. The officer might just be trying to put the student at ease, but this gives applicants an opportunity to make a good first impression by showing that they have sufficient language skills to discuss these topics.

The fourth edition of Voices of Freedom provides a valuable section that prepares students for all aspects of the interview, from arrival at the office, the walk to the officer’s desk, the swearing in, all the questions about the applicant’s eligibility and personal information, and the all-important “Have you ever . . . ” questions that ask about criminal background, association membership, and other topics with challenging vocabulary. (See pages 213-225 of the text for this important interview practice.) I hope that with adequate preparation using this practice material, your citizenship students will indeed succeed in their interviews and do so “from the first hello.

Try These Sample Reproducibles

The Voices of Freedom Teacher’s Guide includes reproducible worksheets offering writing, reading, and civics practice for each unit. You can download the worksheets for Unit 1.
The Teacher’s Guide also includes reproducible activity sheets and flash cards for students to practice the language they need to succeed in the spoken English test. You can download the four worksheets that focus on the important first minutes of the interview when students want to be sure to make a good first impression.




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