After years of teaching small children, it was clear to Iliana Gutierrez how much good picture books can do to enhance classroom discussions and improve the learning experiences of young students.
“Picture books have a way of conveying a message that just doesn’t seem the same through text or pictures alone,” says the former kindergarten and fifth-grade teacher. “I thought that picture books could be a great way to introduce a language of the creative process — particularly around the sorts of questions and frustrations that naturally arise when we try to create quality work.”
Gutierrez came to the Ed School with a few story ideas in mind, and hoped her year in the Arts in Education (AIE) Program would give her the resources — and space — needed to bring her ideas to life. She was also excited to work with Project Zero to explore ways in which a culture of learning can be developed in a classroom. She has managed to accomplish both. As an artist-in-residence with Project Zero, she completed her first picture book, Spark, Flicker, Flash: What’s It Like to Have Ideas? which she will now work on getting published.
“Iliana possesses a remarkable combination of what might seem opposite qualities —highly disciplined single-minded focus and an incredibly open mind. In Iliana, these qualities mix, meld, and seem absolutely natural,” says Senior Lecturer Steve Seidel, director of AIE. “She has been working nonstop since she arrived at HGSE on the creation of a very beautiful and unusual book for elementary age children about the nature of ideas — where they come from, how they can be nurtured, and what it takes to bring them into the world. At the same time, she has been a quiet, but consistent, leader who seems to lead through listening and considering all perspectives and possibilities. She will take positions and she will act, but her foundation is built on listening, inquiry, and bringing her deep moral compass to every decision she makes."
Upon learning that she had been honored with the Intellectual Contribution/Faculty Tribute Award for AIE, Gutierrez answered some questions about her time at the Ed School and beyond.
What was your greatest fear before attending HGSE? I had been working for the last years, so I was a little intimidated by the idea of being a student again. The butterflies of starting at such a new place made me empathize with the nervous and excited butterflies my students must have felt before starting the school year.
Also, taking the time to write my Statement of Purpose and to reflect on my undergraduate years and work experience over the last 10 years helped me to create a narrative that tied together these seemingly disparate ideas and interests. As a philosophy major, I was always taking literature classes and writing about how literature and the arts can play an educative role. As an art curator, I was fascinated by how art transforms our physical spaces — a belief that translated to the classroom. I eventually ended up in the classroom by volunteering my time as a gardener at a neighborhood school in inner-city Houston. The principal was a gardener, too, and she encouraged me to become a certified teacher so she could hire me. I ran the science lab and the following year I started teaching kindergarten. In the moment, none of these activities really seemed connected, but preparing my application for school helped me to see that I had always been driven to fuse the arts and beauty into places where we learn. I think that is why I admire picture books so much — they are these beautiful objects with the power to transform through story and art.
How did the year at the Ed School help you achieve your goal of writing a picture book? With every course I took, I would try to find a way to relate my research back to picture books — from using class projects to write and illustrate various drafts, to researching how intervention programs use picture books to facilitate class discussions around social-emotional learning. Thanks to my artist residency with Project Zero, I completed my final manuscript for Spark, Flicker, Flash: What’s It Like to Have Ideas? The book highlights the tenuous and sometimes ambiguous nature of ideas through the metaphor of light. After reading the book to elementary students throughout the semester, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief after seeing how the book really seems able to fit in the classroom. I was also able to make some changes to the book based off of their feedback.
How did you stay inspired throughout the year? One of the illustrations in Spark, Flicker, Flash has a ladder reaching into the sky towards a single star. The text below it says, “Some ideas are hard to reach.” I already had the line but the idea for the illustration came from an eight-year-old girl. She was the one who said that when ideas are hard to reach you should get a ladder. When I asked her what kind of ladder might help her reach an idea, she said that a ladder of friends can help. Whenever I felt a little discouraged, I reminded myself to pull together my ladder of friends and mentors. AIE Program Director Steve Seidel and my Project Zero mentor, Terri Turner, have both been tremendous sources of inspiration and insight.
What are your post-HGSE plans? My dream is to become a published children’s book author. I think one of the most important things that picture books do is help to create a language for the things that move us deeply, particularly for things that don’t always have an established language yet. I think this also applies to seeing more diverse representation among characters and cultures. As a Hispanic woman, characters who looked like me and stories that captured a glimpse of my own family traditions were especially meaningful.