Get Real!: A Conversation with Carlos Moreno and Elliot Washor

Q&A   02 September 2020
By Carlos Moreno, Big Picture Learning, and Elliot Washor, Big Picture Learning


It was important to us to surface the kind of journey that is possible for students both in and outside of Big Picture—and create a space where Brown and Black boys and girls can see themselves in a story that feels real.

Carlos Moreno
Co-Executive Director

Big Picture Learning’s Carlos Moreno (Co-Executive Director) and Elliot Washor (Co-Founder) teamed up with Peter H. Reynolds and FableVision Studios to create a first of its kind creation, Get Real!a comic book designed to show what interest-based, mentor-supported REAL world learning looks like. We had the pleasure of chatting with Carlos and Elliot about their project.

Where did the idea for Get Real! originate?

Elliot: At Big Picture Learning, we’re always experimenting. We’re an edgy organization—always working to prove that things can be done differently. We were student-driven before people started to use the word student-driven. We’ve been using that term for 25 years. Now, we’re trying to get more creative about getting the word out through videos, books, and articles, including an animation we did two years ago called Navigating Our Way.

Regarding this project, at some point, I reached out to Carlos to chat about an idea I’ve been thinking about for years. I wanted to explore the possibility of creating a graphic novel, and knew Carlos would be interested. And, as a former comic book kid myself, I knew we had that connection. I said, “Let’s do this together.” My only caveat was, “It’s gotta be your story, Carlos.”

Carlos: I was inspired by the animation created in Navigating Our Way, precisely because I had been in a number of conversations with other education leaders around the “college for all” debate. 

From the moment I joined the organization 18 years ago, Big Picture has said that college should be a possibility for all young people, but we are not mandating that every young person go to college. We should also lift up and celebrate, equally, young people who choose different routes. 

Navigating Our Way captured that belief in a really beautiful, elegant, and powerful way. When Elliot approached me about the idea of a graphic novel, I thought about the idea from that perspective and, moreover, from the perspective of being someone who grew up loving comic books (and still follows a variety of different ones, including many that have become television and movies). 

Elliot and I both wanted this book to be very real and include real people. Bella, the primary character, is inspired by my daughter, Isabella. That includes her physical attributes, and the things she enjoys doing. Similarly, Xavi, the other main character, is created in the likeness of my nephew, Xavier. Then Mr. Papi, Bella’s mentor, is based off of my dad.

It was important to us to surface the kind of journey that is possible for students both in and outside of Big Picture—and create a space where Brown and Black boys and girls can see themselves in a story that feels real. It wasn’t just about Black characters in a very White world. We made a lot of intentional choices about dialect and environment. We really wanted it to be steeped in authenticity. 

Why base the characters on real people, and why use Get Real! as the title?

Carlos: For us, there was no other way to do it than to use real characters. It’s a way to honor and celebrate folks that are important to us as authors and creators.

Starting the creative process from a place that is grounded in reality is just who Big Picture is as a network and as an organization. It’s all captured in a statement that Elliot always shares: “If it ain’t real, it ain’t real, right?” Why develop a fictitious character based on an idea out of thin air? I would argue that everything is inspired by someone we know, someone we’ve encountered, or some lived experience we’ve had. 

Elliot: I feel everybody uses real characters in fiction, even if they say otherwise. But, you still have some license to play with the characters and how their stories are told. 

In both Navigating Our Way and Get Real!, we subtly show learning and physical differences. For example, the character Seymour has an arm that has limited mobility and Bella has vision loss in one of her eyes. In both cases, unless you’re watching really closely, you’ll miss it. We made them subtle to invoke the way kids would experience these physical differences. They don’t pay much mind to them up until a certain age.

Bella and her mentor working on building a drone. Bella's eyes are two different shades of brown.

Bella building a drone with her mentor. Notice the subtle color difference in Bella’s eyes.

There are many personal touches built in, because Get Real! is who we are at Big Picture. We’re about authentic learning and learning out in the real world. We want to get the students out of school and bring back authentic, engaging learning. 

We started this before COVID-19, and one of the interesting things that happened was seeing how perfectly it fit with online learning because we’ve always done “distance” education. BPL students aren’t always sitting in their seats or in front of a computer screen. They are moving around. They work peer-to-peer and with mentors, have really engaged families, and we trust them to move freely in school and out in the community. 

There’s an old expression that we use: “At Big Picture Learning, we bring education to life, and we also bring life to education.” It’s really important that people see that schools like ours exist—where students light up, and where mentors and adults light up because they’re working with kids in a very real and rewarding way. This book is about getting real with learning. 

Can you expand on why the lessons in Get Real! are so relevant to this moment of distance learning? 

Elliot: It was easy for Big Picture to do education at a distance because we’ve already been doing it. When we moved our advisory online, it was nearly seamless because the families, students, and mentors all knew each other. Many students were working socially distant during their internships, including programs that focus on skilled trades, like aviation.

It’s unfortunate that the stars aligned this way, but it was also an opportunity to show that this is the way education should be. Now it’s real. People are locking kids down into seats in front of screens, which is the result of a lot of regulations and decisions being made at the top. 

I hope this moment is persuasive and reveals that young people and adults want more. We have the “more” and can make this happen.

Carlos: It’s about addressing the two pandemics: COVID-19 and the systemic racism that has existed for centuries and is now coming to the surface in a different and necessary way. 

What’s been really important for Elliott and me is to, in our own way, make sense of this moment. Some people are moving from anger to rage, but we are doing what we can to bring truth to young people and move them into a space of joy and continued learning by seeing themselves in the pages of a book. We believe it is very timely.

Are graphic novels emerging as a more legitimate form of storytelling in education spaces?

Carlos: From the perspective of my days as a teacher and principal, I encountered many students who did not enjoy reading. They enjoyed (and were really great at) so many things, but they hadn’t been introduced to books they could connect with—ones that brought them so much joy they couldn’t put them down. 

Introducing them to graphic novels is much different. It’s something they can read, while seeing the story unfold. And, while the interpretation of the story is shaped by the author and illustrator, which leaves less room for interpretation or imagination, the ideas are still beautifully captured and presented in a way that is easy to understand.

It’s another way to bring a story to life, and I believe a lot of schools have realized that it’s a way to engage young people in reading.

Elliot: Absolutely. There’s a little number one on the cover of this book, just like in the comics, because there’s going to be more coming. I’ve been in touch with people studying in Canada and the United States who have written graphic novels (and had them accepted) for their dissertations. They are so wonderfully detailed and vivid in ways that you couldn’t convey through words alone. 

The merging of text and image is very, very powerful. When images overtake words, it signals something in the world, historically. Arguably the most important photograph of the 20th-century was the astronauts taking a picture of the earth. You can’t convey it in words. But, when you see it, ‘Whoa!’

What have you learned throughout this process? 

Carlos: I learned, from Elliot, about how to appreciate all the nuances and intricacies within the pages of the book. There are details in Get Real! that are incredibly important to us that I would have overlooked on my own, such as illustrating Bella’s sight loss in one eye, which was inspired by my daughter’s own reality. I appreciate the nuances of capturing that in a respectful way. 

When something is based on real people, you have to bring them to life in a way that honors them and their experiences. My daughter Isabella consistently provided creative feedback around what felt appropriate for her age group. She’s a teenager and knows (better than we do) what’s appropriate for a middle schooler regarding character development, word choice, and phrases.

Because, as cool as Elliot and I are, we’re not that cool. We’re just two “kids” from Brooklyn and The Bronx, who are just trying to leave this world a little better than we found it.

Elliot: I learned how difficult it is for young people to talk to their parents about the things they really want to do—parents aren’t always accepting of ideas like going to college to become an artist.

Though sometimes it’s misguided, parents are responding that way out of love and that plays out in the conflict that Xavi is having around wanting to be a graphic designer, not a lawyer, and not having his parents’ approval. 

Hopefully parents and young people read this and find a way to talk to one another about the importance, for all of us, of owning our own learning journeys.

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