The BTU Responds: Unz Initiative to End Bilingual Education

Berta Berriz

Unz: “bad for student, bad for parents, bad for teachers…”

July 2002

Article: “Unz Got Your Tongue: What Have We Lost with the English-only Mandates?” by Berta Berriz, 2006

“Effective teachers know that in order to teach any topic we must first find out what students already know. Tapping students’ existing knowledge base enables the teacher to identify the entry point for introducing new knowledge. But what if students’ existing knowledge and skills are perceived to be valueless?” …

… “Under the current English-only law, this is precisely what happens to English language learners (ELLs). They are prohibited by state law from using and learning in their native tongue. To further frame the racist and anti-pedagogical nature of the loss of access for my students, consider this: proficiency in a second language is a high-school graduation requirement in our state; ironically, our students are forced to forget the language that they bring to school in order to learn.”

“Bilingual education emphasizes recognizing and using students’ assets as the foundation for developing new academic competencies- including English oral language and literacy development. However, with the new enactment of Question 2, knowing a language other than English is now viewed as an obstacle to learning.”

“Despite the lack of professional development and materials, BPS directed teachers to do away with all non-English language textbooks and materials… teachers were pretty much left on their own to prepare for their first year of SEI.”

“English language learners continue to be isolated in segregated classrooms with little access to native English speakers and more proficient English speakers… Students who are not proficient in English are expected to take a myriad of tests in English.”

Oral History

Almost 20 years after the Unz Initiative was passed, Berta Berriz sat down with Professor Nicholas Juravich and Betsy Drinan for the Boston Teachers Union Oral History Project on December 17, 2021 to discuss Berriz’s time as an educator at the Boston Teachers Union School.

Berta Berriz: “When the Unz vote came down, it was devastating for my students … I walked into the school that morning.  My kids weren’t there.  The hallway was lined with books, Spanish books.  All the teachers had apparently — because they said teachers taken all the Spanish books out of the classroom, and they were literally dumped in the hallway.  I walked in.  This is what my students would see when they walked in, all these books, Spanish books.  So it was very serious.  I always started my day with my students in a morning meeting.  So we had a morning meeting when we came in.  But before the morning meeting, I said, kids, we’ve got to get the books.  We can’t have the books out in the hallway like that. So we pulled — everybody just went out all around the school and just brought in — we made a beautiful library of Spanish books in my classroom.  And then we had the conversation.  Because for my students, they couldn’t understand it. Like some of the things they said — they said, why do they hate us because we speak Spanish?  Or they asked a question like, does that mean I can’t speak Spanish to my family anymore? So, for me, it was just so painful.  You got to understand when you go through these experiences — I’m 71 years old.  I’m still trying to grapple with everything I lived through when I moved to this country telling me that I couldn’t speak Spanish in school, you know, that kind of thing.  It does something to your health, to your wellbeing.  You really have to sort of — that’s my next project is to decolonize my mind.  And then the kids go through this.”