The BTU Responds to the Unz Initiative: Final Reflections

Screenshot taken by author from the digital exhibit, “The BTU Responds: Unz Initiative to End Bilingual Education.” Article is from the February 2002 edition of the Boston Union Teacher.


Hello, I am Yasmeen Khader, a second-year graduate student studying Critical Ethnic & Community Studies. 

I wanted to focus on an exploration of ethnic studies and related subjects and topics in the Boston Union Teacher not only because it’s related to my major and area of interest, but also because I plan to pursue a career in education, and one of my main goals as an educator is to foster an inclusive classroom. I was interested to see how the BTU has historically incorporated subjects and topics of ethnic studies. 

The topic of my digital exhibit is the Unz Initiative that was passed in 2002 to end bilingual education in Massachusetts. Getting to this specific topic was kind of a long time coming. 

Exhibit Process

I started off my research by trying to plug phrases like “ethnic studies” and “culturally sustaining pedagogy” into the BTU archives, which yielded little to no relevant results. So, then I decided to search each of those keywords individually, and I got a ton of hits for the search term “culture.” I began screenshotting articles that discussed topics similar to what we now call ethnic studies and culturally sustaining pedagogy. I collected over 50 screenshots, which started to become a bit overwhelming. I worked very collaboratively with Professor Nicholas Juravich to narrow down my focus and hone in on a particular topic. 

Screenshot taken by author of an article from the January 1986 edition of the Boston Union Teacher. This article discusses what we now call “culturally sustaining pedagogies.”

Professor Juravich and I noticed a trend in the 2000s of a big push to develop “classroom and school cultures.” When we considered why there might have been such a big shift and focus on culture, we realized that legislation that was being passed at this time was seriously negatively impacting bilingual, ELL, ESL, and immigrant students. In a period when schools were opening and closing rapidly because of federal state policy incentives, building school community was a counter move to support an increasingly diverse student body. 

Screenshot taken by author of an article from the May 2010 edition of the Boston Union Teacher. This article discusses creating a a school culture that is against and diminishes bullying.

I then went back to the BTU archives, but this time I plugged in the terms “Unz” and “NCLB.” My archive for the exhibit consists mainly of screenshots of articles from the Boston Union Teacher, but I also incorporated several secondary sources such as articles and visuals. Some of my secondary sources include: video clips from a panel discussion from a campaign for high-school equity, a PBS clip on the Border Protection/Antiterrorism and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005 (or House Bill H.R. 4437, an anti-immigrant bill that passed in the house but died in the Senate), and information on the LOOK Act which replaced the Unz Initiative. 

I dedicated an entire page in the exhibit to Berta Berriz because she has been outspoken in advocating for immigrant students and language learners since the 1980s. I included an audio clip from an interview from December 2021 that she did with Professor Juravich and Betsy Drinan on her time as an educator at the Boston Teachers Union School, an article she posted in the Boston Union Teacher in 2002 on why teachers should oppose Unz, and an article she wrote for The Radical Teacher in 2006 on the effects of the Unz Initiative. 

Screenshot taken by author of an article from the October 2007 edition of the Boston Union Teacher. In this article, Berta Berriz discusses best practices for teaching immigrant students and “culturally responsive” teaching and classrooms.


In terms of the revisions to the digital exhibit, the main thing to do is add in a bit more of my own voice where there are big blocks of text from the Boston Union Teacher. Also, I need to make the timeline clearer, and let the reader know when the BTU is taking action to oppose the initiative before it passes, and then how the Union is responding after the passage. I could also possibly bring the section on Berta Berriz to the opening page of the exhibit, since she is a beloved BTU member, and her quotation is so powerful about the impact of the Unz initiative on her students. This would be a great way to highlight her voice and catch the eye of fellow BTU members. 

As far as the future of this digital exhibit, even from the beginning of my research journey, I have always thought that it would be incredibly interesting and informational to explore how the history of ethnic studies and related topics have evolved in Boston Public Schools, the Boston Teachers Union, and the Boston Union Teacher. Unfortunately, given the scope of this graduate class, I was unable to compile this timeline in one semester.

Although I was unable to compile a comprehensive timeline, I did still gather a significant amount of research materials. Some of these materials are included in my first blogpost, “Reimagining Ethnic Studies in BPS.” This blogpost is connected to my digital exhibit because it explores the prevalence of ethnic studies and culturally sustaining pedagogies that are fostered in Boston Public Schools today. While my digital exhibit focuses on how the BTU had to battle for immigrant, ESL, and ELL student rights in the 2000s, my first blogpost focuses on the ways in which BPS currently aims to foster inclusive and diverse classrooms.

My digital exhibit is also connected to several other exhibits created by my classmates. The digital exhibit entitled, “Women’s Voices” also highlights Berta Berriz’s inspirational work and the achievements of Kathy Kelley. Similarly, the digital exhibit “Kathy Kelley v. Kevin White” expands upon Kathy Kelley’s work in the BTU. The digital exhibit “Snapshot: Desegregation 1974” is connected to mine because around this time culture began to be mentioned in the Boston Union Teacher and the BTU began to focus on the diversity of students, schools, and classrooms.

Finally, my digital exhibit connects to materials that we read in our History 682 class. Concepts from Michael Frisch’s (2011) article, “From A Shared Authority to the Digital Kitchen, and Back,” are pervasive throughout my digital exhibit. For example, his assertion that we are not the sole interpreters of public history, and that oral and public histories should be as accessible as possible are core theories that drive this project and myself as a graduate student. Additionally, Frisch’s (2011) notion that listening to oral histories is just as valuable and important as reading transcriptions of oral histories is a concept that I incorporated into my digital exhibit. This concept I fundamentally agreed with as a student of CECS. I was surprised to learn that historians often favor transcriptions of oral histories over the audio itself.


Standing in Solidarity: A Final Reflection

BTU Standing in Solidarity is a project inspired by many factors, a few being coincidence. This past year I worked in the University Archives and Special Collections (UASC) while also in Digital Public History. While working in UASC I was inventorying Tess Ewing’s collection which had recently come to UMass Boston. While inventorying it I noticed that it related to what we were talking about in Digital Public History about the Boston Teachers Union (BTU). And then I hit the jackpot, Newsletters from the School Bus Drivers Union, Hazard Lights from 1979-1982 which cover the formation of the Union through the strike. And in those newsletters I found just how often the Boston Teachers Union showed up.

            I absolutely loved how these collections interacted and seeing the solidarity between these two unions that were closely aligned. Through a virtual visit with the editors of the Boston Union Teacher I learned about how the BTU is presently supporting other unions, sending food to the Nurses Union, etc. And when perusing the Boston Union Teacher I continued to see the BTU show up for other Unions again and again, either going to support their picket lines, sending money, or regularly publishing ‘Do Not Buy’ lists. Seeing the support in the present and in the past, it made me want to highlight all of the ways that the BTU has continued to show up for other Unions over their long and varied history.

            For the digital exhibit I chose to focus on four big strikes in the 1970s to the early 1980s. This decade was one of militant action on the parts of Unions. The BTU even went on strike themselves during this time. And several other Unions nationwide also advocated for change at this time. The BTU paid attention to these nationwide issues, which is why I focused on the United Farmworkers Gallo Grape Boycott and the J.P. Stevens Boycott. Both of these were not local but that did not deter BTU members from supporting these issue. And after looking at these nationwide issues I also wanted to look at more local ones, like the General Electric Strike, which happened just a few hours from Boston. But most notably the School Bus Driver Strike, which affected the everyday lives of the BTU members. And the strike that they were able to support more directly, actually showing up on their picket lines.

Image of people holding signs that say "Drivers on Strike" in front of a bus
Image of people on the picket line from the November 1980 issue of the Boston Teachers Union

            To do the research, finding these moments of solidarity, mostly consisted of combing through each issue of the Boston Union Teacher and taking copious notes. While I loved finding these moments of solidarity, I also loved to see what was going on at the time as well. Alongside the militant union action was also the fight for Teacher Aids to enter the union, win a better contract, and for school nurses to advocate for better working conditions.

            My favorite resource to use was from Tess Ewing’s collection. Digging through her papers showed a whole other fight, closely aligned with the BTU, advocating for student safety and fair conditions. The Hazard Lights newsletter also shows just how close-knit the School Bus Union is and how hard they worked. Having all of these paper resources to work with influenced the layout of my digital exhibit greatly, knowing that I would not be working with multi-media sources. It led to me incorporate different aspects of these texts, from linking, to screenshots, to putting the entire document on the page.

            Overall, this exhibit is meant to highlight the ways that Unions can come together to support one another, but also show the national reach of solidarity. Regardless of how far away, it is possible to continue supporting these strikes, boycotts, and more. And there are many more ways to explore how the BTU continues to stand in solidarity today, if there were much more time this exhibit could run from 1970 all the way through the present, looking at what it looks like to stand in solidarity at different times. On a smaller scale this exhibit is also meant to show that despite the many missteps of the BTU in the past, they are still consistent in standing in solidarity.

Unsatisfactory? The Evaluation Fight of 1985

When it comes to school evaluations, student grades by teachers probably come to mind. However, the winter of 1985 saw the teachers of the Boston Teachers Union (BTU) confront a very different kind of assessment: the Boston Public School (BPS) administration and its evaluation of its teaching staff. The cartoon below, published in the January 1985 issue of the Boston Union Teacher, captured the problem: busybody administrators and superintendents looking for reasons to fail teachers and keeping them from educating children. What was going on that school year and how did teacher evaluations play a role?

Time to Eat! The Right to a Duty-Free Lunch

Just a few quiet minutes to yourself to eat lunch, every day – everyone deserves that, right? Well, for decades Boston educators, especially elementary school teachers, did not have a guaranteed right to a duty-free lunch.

That’s why the BTU made it one of their earliest contract demands.

The calls for a duty-free lunch started early. The Boston Union Teacher newspaper for December 1963 included “duty-free lunch” in a list of topics to discuss at an upcoming membership meeting at the Hotel Bradford. (Side-note: The same issue contained a touching memorial to John F. Kennedy, whose sudden assassination shocked the world only the month before on November 22, 1963.)

Lunchbox 1980s” via Wikimedia Commons (Greg Mote from Los Angeles, USA, CC BY 2.0)

Women’s Voices in the BTU

Being a woman in the American workplace, especially prior to the twenty-first century, often means association with education. That’s certainly no exception for my family. My mother was a teacher’s aide for kindergarten classes. Two of my aunts are teachers. My maternal grandmother worked in administration, and my paternal grandmother was a school crossing guard. Most recently, my sister left an early education center for an elementary classroom of her own. Their careers taught me at a young age how much the education system relies on these women to not only nurture young minds, but to be the pillars of the system’s daily function as well.