Meet Jessica Gilliam

Annie KennedyInside WITS

Jessica Gilliam (she/her) is one of three new program coordinators who joined the staff at WITS in November 2021. Read on to learn more about Jessica, why she loves The Grapes of Wrath, and what she is most looking forward to about working at WITS.

Tell us about yourself.

My name is Jessica, and I grew up in Oak Park, IL, just outside of Chicago. My mother loved to read, and I grew up surrounded by books at home. Reading naturally became an essential part of my life from an early age. I have a bachelor’s degree in literature and a master’s degree in education, both from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After graduate school, I moved to Mérida, Mexico, where I worked as an English teacher and program coordinator at a lab school that was centered around arts literacy. Watching my students develop language through self-expression and the arts was an amazing experience. Although I will always consider Mexico my second home, I’m happy to be back in Chicago with the WITS community.

What are you most looking forward to about working at WITS?

I’m most excited about connecting with students, listening to their stories, and helping them discover the joys of reading. There’s so much good work happening in schools these days regarding social-emotional learning (SEL), and I think reading is a great tool for SEL. Close reading activates the empathy muscle, and I believe we need more empathy in the world. Helping young learners tap into this is crucial, and I’m thrilled to be a part of it. 

What was the best book you had to read in school?

I loved The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck. Steinbeck once said that his “whole work drive has been aimed at making people understand each other,” and I think that’s why his novels really resonate with me. He wrote about marginalized groups in a very humanistic and compassionate way and was committed to addressing socioeconomic issues and injustices that are still relevant today.

What book series would you like to see turned into a TV show?

It isn’t a series, but I would love to see One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez turned into a movie or tv show. It tells the 100-year-long story of the Buendía family. The book is essentially about how storytelling connects people and shapes our lives. It’s one of my favorite novels.

What could you give a 30-minute presentation on with no preparation?

The Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. Having lived there for seven years, I learned a lot about the region and could tell you all about traditional Mayan cooking, folklore, ancient ruins, cenotes (sinkholes), and many other magical things!

Tell us about your favorite teacher.

I’ve had many amazing teachers throughout the years, but my high school English teacher, Mr. McBride, really impacted my life in a positive way. Mr. McBride’s classroom was a joyful space where students often led discussion, and dialogue and inquiry were valued over didactic teaching methods. This really influenced how I taught my classes later in life.  

What song always puts you in a good mood? 

“As” by Stevie Wonder puts me on cloud nine and is always on my road trip playlist. 

WITS is committed to being an antiracist organization. How does diversity, equity, and inclusion come through in your work?

I believe that literacy is one of the foundations of equity. Providing students with culturally relevant books is critical to improving student engagement and overall interest in reading. All students should be able to make meaningful connections with texts that serve as mirrors to their diverse backgrounds and experiences. Some texts should also serve as windows so students can learn about people who are different from them. In this way, students feel represented and valued, but they also learn to value and appreciate people from other backgrounds. I think this is key to creating learning environments that encourage diversity, equity, and inclusion.