Roberto German 00:00
Welcome to Our Classroom in this space we talk about education, which is inclusive of, but not limited to what happens in schools. Education is taking place whenever and wherever we are willing to learn. I am your host Roberto German and Our Classroom is officially in session. Today's guest is Ummi Modeste. A native of Brooklyn, New York, where she attended and graduated from the New York City public school system. She retired from that same school system in 2021, after nearly 30 years of service as a teacher and college and career advisor at City-As-High School, a unique public school in Manhattan. Ummi is an active member of the Breadloaf Teacher Network, an international group of teachers who strive to provide innovative and engaging ways for their students to become stronger readers and writers. She's also the author of, Because I Knew. Yes, yes, yes, y'all. Happy to be with you once again. And if you love poetry, well, we gonna be blessed today. We have some words for you. We have some analysis and we have some how-to introduce this in the classroom. And we have a special guest, my dear friend, a mentor, a sister, a person that has known me for more than 20 years. So she knows the good, the bad, the ugly, but hopefully more good than bad and ugly Ummi Modeste with us today.
Ummi Modeste 02:02
Thank you. Thank you. I'm so excited to be here with you. Yay!
Roberto German 02:08
Oh, I've been looking forward to this. I think it maybe about a year ago, maybe a little longer. And at least an [inaudible 00:02:16] and IG live where we identified some of the poems from your book that resonated with us and we broke it down a little bit. And it was last year, last April during women's history month. And so here we are a little more than a year later, and an opportunity to hear live indirect from the author herself, the author of, Because I Knew. And I loved the work that you shared with us. The words that you shared really spoke to my heart. And I'm honored to have the opportunity to have you in Our Classroom today to share your poetry, to read your poetry, but also to engage in some analysis, build some ideas and strategies to learn how they could bring this into the classroom. And so we have three pieces that you're gonna share with us today.
Ummi Modeste 03:17
I'm ready too.
Roberto German 03:17
Ummi Modeste 03:18
Here we go. First piece. The first piece is entitled Quién Soy Yo.
Quién is [inaudible 00:03:27] you ask around sure that I won't understand.
Quién soy yo, I am the grandmother you don't acknowledge. Latia that you pretend doesn't exist. The one you no longer visit back home.
Quién soy yo. I am your sister who yearns to stay connected. The one whose heart breaks each time you turn away.
Quién soy yo I was your neighbor on South Union or 174th street before you move to Tower Hill or the Upper West Side, the one you ignore and stop and shop as you do your best to smile and chat with Karen down the aisle.
Quién soy yo. Quién soy yo, I am you the part of you that has not been bleached, straightened, and anglicized into oblivion. The part of you that doesn't need to habla Espanol we loudly in public to prove that you're not a part of me.
Quién soy yo, I am your grandmother, your aunt, your sister, your neighbor, who still loves you and will accept you once again when you learn to accept your black self.
Roberto German 04:49
Mm. Mm mm. Oh, sister, you speak and you saying something here. Thank you for sharing.
Ummi Modeste 04:56
Roberto German 04:57
Where do we begin? This analysis Quién Soy yo, what does that mean first of all? That title, what does that mean? Why that title?
Ummi Modeste 05:10
Well, that title means literally, who am I. And this piece grew out of a conversation around identity and how we self-identify opposed to how people identify us and how people choose maybe to change their identity based on the situation in which they find themselves or the situation that they choose. So this piece started with a simple prompt, I am. That's how it started. I am. What does that mean? Who am I? I am. And then also I had an altercation, an actual altercation with women in the grocery store who were hablado Espanol we loudly. Who were speaking Spanish very loudly and talking about me, assuming that I did not understand a word of what they were saying. And so the combination—
Roberto German 06:25
Assumptions are dangerous.
Ummi Modeste 06:27
Assumptions are very dangerous. And so the writing prompt happened in a workshop I was attending with Andover Bread Loaf, which we can-- I'm sure we'll talk about. And that altercation came to mind and that was the Genesis of that piece.
Roberto German 06:47
Hmm. I'm sorry you had to go through that experience. I'm also grateful that it produced this wonderful work of art. Talk to me about the bilingualism in the piece. And are you a native Spanish speaker? If not, how'd you work the language so well, because it was seamless going between the Spanish and the English.
Ummi Modeste 07:13
Well, thank you. That's a compliment. Thank you. I am not a native Spanish speaker. Spanish is my L3 or my third language. My first language is English. I'm born and raised in New York though. So you gotta learn some Spanglish at least. I studied Spanish in high school and in college, and just like interacting with native Spanish speakers, I've always wanted, no, I'm not even gonna put that like in the past tense. I am always trying to improve my Spanish and get people to converse with me in Spanish so that I can improve my Spanish. And the reason for the use of bilingualism in the poem is because we make assumptions about what people's languages are based on how they look, and that will mess you up every time. So that's why I chose to use both English and Spanish in the piece.
Roberto German 08:16
Right. We need to suspend our assumptions.
Ummi Modeste 08:19
Roberto German 08:20
And lead with curiosity.
Ummi Modeste 08:22
Right. Right. And just be open.
Roberto German 08:26 You end this piece by saying Quién soy yo, I am your grandmother, your aunt, your sister, your neighbor who still loves you and will accept you once again when you learn to accept yo black self. Ai ya yai. Slap in the face.
Ummi Modeste 08:48
Well, that's relating to the colorism that exists.
Roberto German 08:53
Talk to me.
Ummi Modeste 08:54
In communities of color, one of the results of the legacy of slavery and colonialism is this hierarchy based on the color of one's skin. And again, back to the assumption that like the dark skin lady with the little Afro can't possibly be a Spanish speaker, who is she? Let me talk about her, 'cause obviously, she's not gonna understand 'cause she's definitely not a Spanish speaker. And then that last stanza is really referring to the fact, unfortunately, that in communities of color, we have people who try to separate themselves from their Africanness, from their blackness. So as to be more accepted in the wider and whiter society.
Roberto German 09:50
Ummi Modeste 09:51
And so that theme is throughout the whole poem. But that last stanza is really, is really about that. And just an earlier stanza where I talk about bleaching, straightening, and anglicizing, that's also what people have done for many generations to try to whiten themselves in order to be accepted, particularly in American society, but not only in American society because that in embedded self-hate about our blackness, our Africanness, that is the result of 400 plus years of oppression and setting whiteness as the standard and centering whiteness as everything good associated with whiteness. And the further away you get from blackness, the better off you are.
Roberto German 10:57
Such an important conversation. Getting to blackness, understanding blackness, getting in touch with our African roots, and one that many people do not necessarily engage in, but should. What are some simple ways that we can bring more people into this conversation? And then I wanna shift into strategies because I know you as a teacher and I know how exceptional you are as a teacher. And so for my teacher followers, for all of our audience that are inactively in the classroom, what are some strategies that you wanna offer them?
Ummi Modeste 11:48
This piece is one of several pieces that I've used in a classroom with social studies teachers. Where we have co-taught units on the history of oppression, the history of slavery and on identity and how our identities have been so deeply impacted by colonialism and by slavery and how we can undo that trauma to ourselves and to our identities. So for example, I had students research their names, the origin of their names, who named them, where did their first name come from, where did their last names come from. And then had them write the story of their names, the actual story of their names if they could find that. If they could get that information by talking to elders in their family, by talking to elders in their community. Now for some students, that's not possible. I had them also-- I also gave them the option of fictionalizing the story of their name. Make up a story that explains why your name is whatever your name is. And then talk about how that's connected to your identity. What is the relationship between your name and your identity? And I always close it out with, if you were going to change your name if you had to change your name. 'Cause you know, some kids you say, well, if you were going to change your name and they right away come back with, "I would never change my name." Okay. Okay. But the assignment is to use your imagination if you-- so then I would say sometimes to them, if you had to go into witness protection, what name...
Roberto German 13:51
That's a good one.
Ummi Modeste 13:53
You know, what name would you choose and why? And then they had to explain the relationship between the name they chose and the identity that went with that name. Another layer that we would add, and all of this ends up with a little chatbook to share with the rest of the school. Another angle that we took with that was to guess. To talk about the assumptions we make, how we look around the room and say, oh, that one, he must be Chinese. He certainly doesn't speak Spanish. Oh, that one he's African American. He definitely doesn't speak Russian. And being in New York, which is where I spent my entire teaching career, you have a little bit of everybody. So it was very enlightening for the students to admit the assumptions they were making and then have those assumptions destroyed.
Roberto German 15:02
Love it. Love the fact that our learners are being pushed to think critically about these topics, about the concepts, about themselves, about their history, their origins. You mentioned that this was co-taught in social studies, correct?
Ummi Modeste 15:27
Roberto German 15:28
Do you see opportunity to do some interdisciplinary work with this piece?
Ummi Modeste 15:37
I believe that there is a way to use poetry, to use literacy, to use literature in every aspect of teaching math, science, social studies. Social studies and English are just a natural pair. Just a natural pair. The better you read, the more you read, the more you learn, the more you know about the world, the more you can write about the world. And when I was teaching in New York City, my students had a very wide range of literacy skills. So working with the social studies teacher to talk about and read about concepts that my students could relate to also helped build their literacy. And then to use a poem such as this is something that they can all relate to. It is not the literacy level necessary to read and understand this poem is not very high. The poem is deep, but the literacy level is not that high. So it was accessible to my students. And because again, it was New York City, they have all had similar experiences with people making assumptions about them or them making assumptions about other people. I remember clearly a student who identifies as Jamaican American saying that she was in a nail salon. And the ladies in the nail salon were talking about her in Mandarin assuming she didn't understand because she was black, but they didn't know her grandfather was Chinese. And that she was very fluent in Mandarin and that's...
Roberto German 17:30
Ummi Modeste 17:31
Right. And that's when I never would have even thought about-- never would've thought about it, but she listened to everything that they said, and then came back at them in their native language.
Roberto German 17:43
Good for her.
Ummi Modeste 17:44
Roberto German 17:45
Good for her. We're so terrible sometimes.
Ummi Modeste 17:48
Yes, to each other.
Roberto German 17:50
Human beings we're just-- we can be the worst.
Ummi Modeste 17:54
Roberto German 17:56
And this is why it's important to have these conversations and put these things out there, shed the light and lovingly challenge and encourage. I feel that here.
Ummi Modeste 18:09
Roberto German 18:11
As always your engagement in Our Classroom is greatly appreciated. Be sure to subscribe, rate the show, and write a review. Finally, for resources to help you understand the intersection of race bias education in society, go to multiculturalclassroom.com. Peace and love from your host, Roberto German.