“When people make the time to read with children, children get the message that reading is important.” NEA
Students, parents, teachers and people from many walks of life, will read to children March 2, in recognition of “National Read Across America Day,” a program the National Education Association established 20 some years ago.
Athletes and actors will issue reading challenges to young readers. Governors and other elected officials will recognize the role of reading with proclamations.
Naomi Gruer, a children’s writer and preschool teacher, participated in a remote event, “World Read Aloud Day,” a few years ago.
“Reading to kids made me so happy because, in that moment, we explored the world inside the story together.”
To prepare the children for the online experience, Naomi asked them to listen for certain things as she read — a funny incident or a silly outcome or a character acting in a peculiar way. “The minute I was on Skype with the kids, everything else melted away. It was as if I was in the classroom with them,” she said.
Later, as a Microsoft Guest Educator, she was asked by several educators to read to their students. One request came from a teacher in Spain, who wanted English to be read to her classroom.
Naomi applied the same format to all her remote classroom sessions: an introduction, followed by reading (either chapters or picture books depending on the age of the students.)
“They listened actively and were ready to point out and discuss the humor. Introducing students to my dog was the ultimate ice breaker.” Naomi blogs at https://bmoreenergy.wordpress.com
What You Can Do:
There are many free and low cost ways to provide children with books in print, online, audio and video formats. For example, the “We Need Diverse Books” program provides free diverse books to schools serving low-income students around the country.
Want to find out more about these pandemic-inspired picture books and E-Books and related info, activities, and free downloads? Check out Pippinherohelpers.com.
NG:How did you come to children’s writing and illustrating?
DM: I think like many of us in the KidLit realm, I fell in love with picture books as a young child and have always been drawn to storytelling. As I got older I developed the desire to create books myself, but never did more than write some poetry and short essays. I visited it again, briefly, before my son was born, having designed a little girl character, but never took her anywhere till the 90s. At that time, when my health declined enough that I became disabled and was moved to write poetry again, a friend encouraged me to write.
I was thinking it was the perfect way for me to be able to stay home and earn a living. Little did I know how difficult it would be to get published! Had I known, I likely wouldn’t have pursued it. As difficult as it has been as far as the pursuit of getting traditionally published, it has also been incredibly joyful because of all the many kindred kidlit friends (like you) I’ve met along the way and I can’t imagine having missed out on all that—ever.
NG: What did you learn in the process of self publishing that most surprised you?
DM: I can’t really say anything about self-publishing actually surprised me because I knew it was a huge undertaking having to do literally everything myself. It’s why I never wanted to do it! I hate dealing with the business/money end of anything and with self-pubbing it’s unavoidable. I considered the project worth it though. I was already very familiar with the process, but did a lot more research and purchased a few “how to” books, including the legalities, etc., all of which helped me make important decisions. Ultimately, because it seemed the wiser choice to keep as much control as possible, not limit where and how I could sell, and keep my private life and finances separate, I ended up investing in my own ISBNs and establishing an imprint.
I guess the one thing I didn’t expect was that the ebooks, though cheap and readily available, weren’t what people (at least my age) preferred. Feedback was the desire for paperback. That pushed me to re-format all six as paperbacks. I can tell you, my father is happy he—and children—will be able to hold a printed book in their hands 🙂 So am I!
NG: Did you start with the story, the art, or was it a combination?
DM: It’s funny—you would think with me being an artist, that art would tend to be where I start, but the only time that really happens is if someone offers a picture prompt! For me, an idea comes, regardless of what triggers it, and I write first. I visualize while I’m writing so the spread illustrations are forming from the beginning of the writing process. My word and art creativity are seamlessly connected in my imagination.
NG: How did you manage your time in order to work on writing, illustrating and publishing the series?
DM: This question actually made me laugh! Manage? Time? From the very beginning I felt pressure because the nature of the subject matter is very timely and I wanted it to be of use as soon as possible, at a time we all hoped would be the worst of the pandemic. (Sorrowfully and tragically, that’s not the case, and in the U.S. will be living with this serious threat for a long while.)
As per usual, I estimate something to take about half the time it actually will so, although I was hoping the books would be available by May/June, the reality of creating 6 books, a website, establishing an imprint and logo, all the glitches that happened along the way and being forced to food shop on occasion and get “some” sleep, there’s never been enough time and here we are at the end of August! And the thing is—I’m not done! Now that the books are finally published and “out there,” I can go back and create the additional artwork required to make 2 more versions: interracial and same-sex parents.
And I feel like I have to give a “shout out” to technology, without which this entire project could not have been possible. I have that proverbial love/hate relationship with it, but in this case — except for the glitches — it was “loooove.” 😉
NG: What is one thing most people don’t know about you?
DM: I’m such an open book, I’m not sure there IS anything! (You) might think that because I thoroughly enjoy good conversation and love to socialize that I might not like to be alone when, in fact — I love being alone!
NG: Who would you like to read your books/what are your goals with the series?
DM: I’m hoping families with young children, and teachers with young students can benefit by the content of the books (ages 3-8), especially now with the problems faced as the school year begins. I think children being able to see their experience in book form, with illustrations that explain something as abstract as a virus, can help them more understand it.
I did my best to show why washing hands, wearing masks and staying physically distant are so important, and by doing these things they become Hero Helpers. By doing so, along with helping the people in their own lives, they ultimately help the heroes who are risking their own lives to help others.
Naomi, thank you SO much for featuring my books on your wonderful blog and giving me the opportunity to talk about them and a bit of what is behind them.
2020 Maryland International Film Festival – Official Selection
Live action and animation blend fluidly to illustrate heartbreak in an emotional and beautiful work of art.
Morgan discussed the inspiration behind her newest short film GHOSTED, which premiered online as a Vimeo Staff Pick, a featured video on Film Shortage, and is a 2020 Maryland International Film Festival Official Selection. “A Broken Leg & a Broken Heart Challenges a Woman’s Sanity in Morgan Gruer’s Beautifully Crafted Short ‘GHOSTED’,” is an insightful interview conducted by Serafima Serafimova for Directors Notes. The full interview and a link to watch the video are below.
Thanks for reading and watching, hon!
Ghosted is a story about a girl in love, but it’s not a love story. It’s a story about the pain of fluctuating between early hope and ultimate despair, the intoxicating revelation of love and the slow, crushing realisation that it’s not reciprocated. Based on her personal experience, Morgan Gruer’s Ghosted follows Grace, a twenty-something who has to deal with a broken leg and a broken heart. Perfectly performed, simultaneously serious and light, the short mixes live action and animation to find just the right scale and tone, never trivialising nor overstating the delicate feelings it explores. The result is a compelling and nuanced work of art. We were delighted to chat with Morgan about her inspiration, process and plenty more.
Was there a specific story or experience that sparked the idea for the film?
Ghosted was quite personal! After an unfortunate cliff diving accident (a story for another time…), I found myself on bed rest at my parents’ house recovering from hip surgery. Within the first week of recovery, I was ghosted by the man I loved. His sudden and uncharacteristic disappearance led me down a path of overthinking that escalated as the months dragged slowly on. Ghosted expands on this, as Grace’s circumstances slowly test her sanity and her well-being.
The animation brings the story to life by adding fun flourishes throughout, and that rotoscoped scene at the end is superb! Why did you decide to blend live action and animation, and how did you land on that particular style and design?
Animation has the ability to express a story in a way that is not possible with film, as it can show the way our minds ‘think’ and ‘feel’. Actions can be hyperbolized without the plausibility being questioned. As the film progresses, Grace’s isolation drives her to the deepest, darkest corners of her mind. We wanted to visually show this retreat as a place that felt far from reality, and animation felt like the perfect way to do this.
The animated phone language was actually decided just a few days before the shoot. While our Cinematographer Dustin Supenchek and I were drafting a shot list, we concluded that there was simply no artful way to film an iPhone. Dustin came up with the idea to execute the texts in hand-drawn animation, which ended up being the perfect precursor to the animated scene.
Animation has the ability to express a story in a way that is not possible with film.
Memory sequences are often too cheesy and overdone (a rather off-putting combo!), but you’ve cut together a dreamy montage which feels fresh, sensual and authentic. How did you go about shooting and editing these scenes?
The goal was to visually dissect the accumulation of different memories when our brains overthink. When describing the tone of this scene to our Editor Chad Sarahina I referenced the childhood game of “broken telephone”. If you’re not familiar with the game, you gather a group of people around in a circle and try to whisper the same sentence from ear to ear. The first person may start with “my ear hurts”, but the second person hears “my beer spurts”. The next person hears something different, and by the end, the final sentence is so unrecognizable that you’re not sure how you got there. This seemed like the perfect analogy to over-thinking.
Memories have the ability to bend toward our preferences, unconsciously but selectively choosing what we want to hear or believe. When diving into my memories, I realized that all of the signs of the situation were, in fact, there – I had just chosen to ignore the parts I did not want to hear. The goal with the montage was to peel away the layers of Grace’s selective consciousness and explore what lay underneath.
Grace could be seen as weak and even anti-feminist, yet her vulnerability makes her disarmingly charming and compelling. How did you shape her character to achieve that balance?
We didn’t want to portray Grace as a saint and Nick as a villain. Despite Grace’s affliction over being ignored, she subsequently does the same thing to the people in her life who care about her. After all, life is not black and white; people are not just good or bad. I am more interested in exploring the in-between moments, the grey zone that makes us human.
Our culture often tells us that “strong women don’t need a man”. While capable women don’t necessarily ‘need’ a man, is it anti-feminist for a woman to simply ‘want’ a man? One can be strong and independent but still crave companionship and connection. I don’t think it should be perceived as weak to admit that.
Grace deals with the physical pain of her broken leg as well as the psychological pain of being broken up with, and there are common threads tying the two (feeling trapped, angry, frustrated) into the ultimate parcel of misery. Why did you want to explore this?
During my recovery, I learned that the longer my body was sedentary, the more hyperactive my mind became. It’s ironic, almost – with a physical injury, one is prescribed clean plans of action for recovery. However, when the pain is psychological, there are no doctor’s orders of how to heal; there are no heartbreak pills or routine check-ups. It is harder to admit when you’re hurting, and even harder to learn how to move past it.
I am more interested in exploring the in-between moments, the grey zone that makes us human.
I wanted to explore the relationship between physical and psychological pain as I found it fascinating that their correlation has the ability to work both directly and inversely. I think this relationship is something to keep in mind during our self-isolation amidst the pandemic and remind ourselves that we need to treat our mental wounds the same way we tend to physical ones.
What’s next for you?
I recently completed another short film called Da Sola, that I plan to release in the coming months (a fully animated one!). In the meantime, I’m keeping busy with freelance work, building out my creative studio, and enjoying quarantine with my current man, who has previewed the film and wouldn’t dare ghost me 😉.Thanks for watching, hon! Serafima Serafimova for Directors Notes. 4/28/20
2020 Maryland International Film Festival – Official Selection
Live action and animation blend fluidly to illustrate heartbreak in an emotional and beautiful work of art.
GHOSTED, the newest short film my daughter Morgan conceived of and directed, premiered online as a Vimeo Staff Pick and as a featured video on Film Shortage. Her friend since kindergarten, actor Ariel Mortman, plays the main character in this based-on-true-experience story. Interviews with Morgan coming up…
When Grace (Ariel Mortman) is “ghosted” at the same time as recovering from an injury, she drives herself mad waiting for a call. Grace must confront reality in her sedentary state in order to heal both mentally and physically.
If we focused on ensuring that children know their strengths, have the opportunity to pursue their passions, and can advocate for themselves and their community, many of our society’s ills would be fixed quickly. How we treat our kids shows how we treat our whole society.
Lift Your Legacy: Finding balance and support while breaking through barriers with Talia Kovacs and Rabbi Jacob Rupp
Talia is the 30-year old CEO of LitLife. an international literacy consulting firm. Not only is she the CEO of a company, but Talia also serves on the school board of Ivy Hill Prep as the Chair of the Academic Committee and is an adjunct professor at Relay Graduate School of Education. In addition to all of these roles, Talia is also a wife, sister, and friend. Needless to say, Talia has a lot to balance!
Before she was Chief Executive of LitLife, Talia was a literacy consultant with LitLife, working with large school districts to promote joyful reading education. In just two years, Talia led schools to raise literacy scores by 60%. Through her social-emotional strength initiatives, students’ assessment of their own strengths increased by 100%.
Talia began her teaching career in DC Public Schools, teaching elementary and middle school. She then moved to New York to become a founding teacher at Achievement First Aspire Elementary School, joining a team of dedicated teachers and administrators in building an excellent school from the ground up. At Achievement First, Talia’s students increased their reading levels far beyond the grade-level expectation. Talia is a lifelong educator and learner, advocating nationally for social-emotional literacy instruction.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
Growing up, my parents, first-generation Americans who became citizens during my childhood, valued education as a tool for success. I went to five different schools, and I saw the differences in how my peers and I were treated in different schooling environments. I decided I would make it my life’s mission to ensure that each child has access to a joyful, impactful, and meaningful education, starting with literacy, which opens the doors for all else. After graduating from Columbia, I became an elementary school teacher. After years of teaching in some of the most underfunded schools in the country, I realized that curriculum support and teacher development are the two ways to ensure that all children have access to an amazing education. I started to expand beyond my one school, working as a literacy consultant to support teachers so their students could thrive.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My most interesting work has definitely come from all of the travel I’ve done as a leader at LitLife. In times when our country can feel so divided, getting into schools and working closely with people who all have the same goal in mind — to provide an excellent education for kids across the country and around the world — feels so unifying. For example, I work with teachers in North Carolina and in New York City I use the same curriculum but modify it for their vastly different school communities. Even though teachers are in two completely different environments in the country, they all want to ensure that their students are able to access information and encounter the world in meaningful ways. Our partners in Mexico and on the Ivory Coast are actually beginning to speak to each other over video to collaborate on the same projects, supported by our curriculum. That’s been amazing to witness; teachers and principals from all walks of life are unified across a larger mission of equity for students.
What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?
My background is in childhood education, and I do not have an MBA. Therefore, learning to run a small business after becoming the COO and then CEO of LitLife was a big challenge for me, and it is a learning curve I am still working on. I recognized that I could complete my personal mission to give each child access to an amazing and inspiring education by ensuring LitLife is a sustainable, organized and systematized company, enabling us to work with more districts and reach more children. Since LitLife is a 16-year old company with a deep history of excellence, I wanted to be sure that, as I took the helm, I was honoring all of the work of those inspirational teacher leaders who came before me. I read articles and books, listen to podcasts, and attend conferences. Every day, I learn something new. Turns out you don’t need to have an MBA to be a CEO! You do have to know what you want, stick to your values and go for it; it’s all about taking risks and knowing that the work you’re doing has an impact.
What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?
Leadership means empowering others, seeing their strengths, and all working toward the same goal. The work of LitLife is deeply personal and changes daily depending on the school, teacher, administrator, and situation, so we must be an adaptable and cohesive group. I work hard to ensure that all consultants with LitLife feel supported through clear systems, mentorship and resources to do their job well. It’s one thing to support others in their professional careers, and another to ensure that they have the personal means to show up for others each day. I am so inspired by the exceedingly talented people I work with each day that I want to make sure I can listen deeply to their stories so we can all bring our full selves to work each day.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The two people who have had the greatest impact on my success are my husband and my mother. My mom taught me how to work hard and balance family, and my husband shows me every day what it means to have a partner who truly shows up.
When I was preparing for my first board meeting as CEO — remember, no MBA here — it took a ton of time and energy to first put together all of the financials and then understand what they all meant! I was working with a talented finance team who were doing this with me, but it took a ton of my time before and work to truly grasp our projections, our previous profit and loss, and what that all meant for the future of our company. During this time, my husband showed up for me in a deep way. He made me dinner and packed those leftovers for lunch daily. He took away my laptop when it got close to midnight and pushed me to go to bed. He cleaned the house and took care of the laundry so I could focus on my work. This is all while he has his own full-time job and is working to further his own career! He has made my work with LitLife possible by supporting me every step of the way in our home and family life.
Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?
Extremely difficult, especially as I started running the company. My mom died two years ago, which is just as I was gaining more responsibility with LitLife. Navigating the waters of grief was an ongoing challenge, especially while working at a job that took so much of my passion, concentration, and energy. I learned two things from my mom. First, I learned that the only work worth doing was work that makes you light up — work that helps others empower themselves and that makes a difference in the world. I set out to make that happen for myself, and today, I am lucky enough to get to work in a field I am so passionate about. Secondly, my mom worked her butt off to pay for her four daughters to go to school and build up her law practice so she had little time for much else. By watching her work within this complicated space, I learned that I had to have outside hobbies, passions outside of work, and a full family and friend life. I didn’t want to work all the time at the expense of enjoying the quick time we all have on this planet. This meant that I had to get much more efficient at work. I had to learn to empower my team to make decisions and produce amazing results on their own. My mom taught me explicitly to do work that positively impacts people’s lives, and implicitly that this work can’t come at the expense of a rich personal life.
Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?
It requires a much more concerted effort, but I am still able to have dinner with friends, cook at home with my husband (well, really, he does most of the cooking), and drum with my drum troupe, Batala New York. Sometimes I choose to spend my Sunday cooking, drumming, and practicing yoga, and sometimes I choose to spend my Sunday working, writing, and furthering the great work I get to do of promoting joyful reading practices. As I grew in my leadership roles, I learned to focus on other areas of my life beyond work, because if they were going to happen, I was going to have to prioritize them!
Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?
Don’t separate the two! There’s no such thing as your “work life” and your “personal life.” There’s just your life. Inherent to balance is the fact that two opposing sides are connected. Your life consists of work, personal pursuits, family, friends, hobbies, spirituality, and anything else you want it to. It’s all part of the same whole, and when trying to separate them, it’s easy for work to come out first. Don’t have two separate to-do lists, or, I find, your personal life will always take second chair.
When you’re off, be off. This is something I’m working on. I turn off email notifications from my phone and I often leave my phone in another room later in the evening and on Saturdays. If someone really needs me from work, for a work emergency, they can always call me and I’ll hear my phone ring or, worst case, call my husband! But truly, there is no balance if you are working all the time. I always work to ensure that everyone working at LitLife is able to turn off, relax and enjoy time with family and friends. The heart of our work is in improving children’s school lives, and we need happy and well-rounded adults do to this.
Block time on your calendar for the important things. Every day, I exercise, do a ton of work, read informational books to improve my leadership and work style, and read fiction books to help me fall asleep and turn off my brain. Not to mention the TV I watch and the time I spend with friends and family. How do I do this? When I’m working, I’m working. I try not to browse the internet or get distracted during each block. I also am (working to…) not keep my email open all day, but rather carve out specific time for emailing three times per day, so the rest of my day can be spent getting my work done! This advice also applies to your personal life: Blocking out time for personal tasks and projects is essential. Part of this is planning in advance with friends and family so you know when you’re getting together and can block off that time.
Use a combination of pen and computer. This is the teacher in me talking. Sometimes, you need to physically write things down! I keep a bullet journal in addition to my online calendar, so I can write down my to-dos for the week and take notes. Studies show that writing by hand improves memory and helps solidify information in the brain. When I write my to-dos and take notes by hand, it helps ensure that I know what I need to get done. I can physically look back and find the notes that I need for an upcoming meeting!
Exercise. If I’m not healthy, and if I don’t get endorphins rolling around in my brain, I’m too tired and distracted to produce amazing results for our school districts and ensure that we as a company are living by our mission. My work takes immense concentration. To do that, I need my brain to be on and ready during working hours so I don’t waste time. Exercise also helps me have energy in the evenings when I’m off work to drum, dance, cook, run, or get together with friends — or just ensure that I don’t crash after the work day is done.
What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride?
I am deeply proud of our achievement in schools and our success in improving not only literacy scores, but student and teacher satisfaction as well. This year, we as a company are studying our impact in schools. We have found that the schools we work in often achieve ten percentage points higher in literacy scores than they did the previous year. This is a dramatic shift that we are working to understand and replicate throughout our schools. When I see schools that we’ve been working in achieve at such high levels, and see the shift in culture that comes with more relaxed and supported teachers, I know that LitLife is accomplishing the work we all wake up wanting to do each day — ensuring that each child can have a supported, joyful, and meaningful day.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The thing we can all do right now to bring about the greatest amount of good is to all focus on children’s daily lives! We as a society don’t concentrate nearly as much as we should on the eight hours a day that children spend away from their parents, learning to become citizens, scholars, friends, and more. If I could inspire a movement, it would be for society to honor the immense, deeply personal and professional work that teachers do each day with kids. We need to provide enough funding and support so that teachers can do this work joyfully, meaningfully, and impactfully for each student they serve. If we focused on ensuring that children know their strengths, have the opportunity to pursue their passions, and can advocate for themselves and their community, many of our society’s ills would be fixed quickly. How we treat our kids shows how we treat our whole society. We can and must do better!
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
I’m not super active on social media, but I do have a Twitter account that I use to connect with other educators! You can find me there @taliakovacs, or on LinkedIn at Linkedin.com/TaliaKovacs
That’s how many times Morgan’s animated video, Reflections, has been viewed (so far) since it was featured as a Vimeo Staff Pick. I’m so proud of Morgan, a Pratt Institute graduate and my talented, ambitious daughter.
The ephemeral nature of love is captured on-screen in a stunning 2D animation built from a collection of 1,100 individual drawings. Reflections is the expressive, impressive abstract short, and it follows a fleeting relationship between a young couple.
As the the video begins to build the girl starts to question whether the man ever existed or if it was all in her head. Her deliberation is expressed through a series of arm swinging interpretive dance accompanied with explosive graphics and patterns.
Reflections was directed, animated, and edited by Morgan Gruer, a multidisciplinary graphic designer and illustrator who’s done work for heavy hitters like Celine Dion and Gatorade.
In this particular film, the Brooklyn-based artist is careful about her use of color, telling the bulk of the story through gray and black lines. Since color is used so sparingly, however, when it appears, it makes that much more of an impact.
Cheryl Eddy ofio9 on the website Gizmodo.comtitled her article about the video “Lush 2D Animated Film Reflections Examines the Many Stages of Heartbreak.”
Morgan shares thoughts about her work and insights into the process.
BE: What was the initial inspiration for Reflections?
MG: I saw the music video for Breakbot’s song “Baby, I’m Yours,” which is composed entirely of watercolors, and wanted to create something like it. Concept-wise, I was reflecting upon all of my past relationships.
BE: What themes did you have in mind as you worked on your piece?
MG: One of the main themes is independence; at the end of the animation the main character walks away alone but stronger.
BE: Can you explain a little about your process? For example, do you plan it all ahead of time or does it develop as you go along?
MG: I wrote out the story line and asked some friends to write the music for me loosely based on the concept. Even though the story came before the music, I left the musicians room to express my story line. The plot had an overall beginning, middle and end, but I worked out the in-between parts and loose threads while I was working.
BE: How did you keep track of 1100 separate digital drawings?
MG: I compiled each digital drawing in the Timeline Tab of Photo Shop, making it easy to label layers and keep track of everything. I established the frame rate ahead of time.
BE: How long did the project take you from start to finish?
MG: Reflections took four months from concept to creation, although I was working on it alongside other projects.
BE: How do you feel about the finished video?
MG: I am mostly happy with it, but still see things I would have fixed. At some point, you have to call it done because there are always things you could edit. An artist is always her own worst critic and sees things that need tweaking.
BE: Are you surprised by the attention its gotten?
MG: It’s great to get positive feedback and nice to receive validation on a project that hadn’t seen the light of day. It’s exciting that other people relate to my work and appreciate its aesthetic.
Hon, if you haven’t watched it yet, here’s another link toReflections.