ARLINGTON, Va. – A dozen immigrants, hoping to become U.S. citizens, file into Bill Scouton's class to learn about America.
"Why do we have fireworks on the Fourth of July?" he asks.
"Won independence," offers Felicia Basoah of Accra, Ghana.
"Right," Scouton says.
He's encouraged that the students are learning what they need to know to pass the Immigration and Naturalization Service's citizenship test. Then, a few minutes later, they flub a question that would stump many an American: Who was president from 1801 to 1809?
"Abraham Lincoln," one student says. "Franklin Roosevelt," guesses another.
Realizing his students are lost in a time warp, Scouton gives them the answer: Thomas Jefferson.
In the past decade, nearly 6 million immigrants have been sworn in as citizens, and Independence Day is a favorite time to take the oath of allegiance. More than 10,000 people are becoming U.S. citizens in Fourth of July ceremonies this week.
From Ellis Island in New York to the deck of the USS Constitution in Boston, from Jefferson's home at Monticello to the Space Needle in Seattle, new Americans will raise their right hands and renounce their allegiance to foreign powers and pledge to "support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America."
To get to that oath, immigrants must first be interviewed by an INS officer. They are asked 10 questions about U.S. history and government and must get at least six correct.
The interviewer also assesses the immigrants' ability to speak, write and understand basic English. They might, for instance, be asked to read or write down a sentence such as: "Today, I am going to the store."
With colorful maps of the United States and the world taped to a wall, Scouton's room looks like a high school classroom. These students are much older.
In the second hour of class, the more advanced students continue to work on civics with Scouton while the rest learn more basic information, like the difference between "county" and "country." Their teacher is Sowatha Kong Chea from Arlington County's Human Services Department, which offers the classes for free.
Some immigrants want to become U.S. citizens so they can vote. Others want to get an American passport, become eligible for certain federal jobs or qualify for social services.
Zhour Elmouaffak Okedey, 55, from Morocco, works as a cleaning woman. She believes that once she has her U.S. citizenship, she will be able to find a job that will be physically easier as she gets older.
For now, she's practicing committing an English sentence to paper, glancing at an example on the blackboard and writing it repeatedly in her notebook
"I can copy from there," she said, pointing to the blackboard. "But can't write from my head to the paper."
Some students can't correctly pronounce "legislative," "executive" or "Cabinet," let alone understand what they mean.
"COB-bee-nit," says Farzaneh Edatian, a nurse from Tehran, Iran.
"CAB-i-net," the instructor repeats.
"CAH-bee-nit," the woman says, trying again.
Later, to a question about the Civil War, Edatian shouts out "Save the union!" and "Freedom of the slaves!" clasping her hands with a feeling of accomplishment.
Scouton, a retired government worker who volunteers his time to instruct the immigrants, digs through his canvas briefcase. He pulls out a photograph of William Rehnquist, chief justice of the United States, and asks the class to identify him. When nobody does, he writes "Rehnquist" on the board and leads the class in reciting the name.
Next he holds up a picture of Vice President Dick Cheney.
The students know his name, but not his position.
"He helps the president," Okedey says.
"Vice president," Scouton says, hoping they'll remember Cheney's title the next time.