School Visits: Learning by Answering Children’s Questions

Lisa K. Winkler has worked as a journalist and an educator.  She wrote “The Kentucky Derby’s Forgotten Jockeys” for Smithsonian Magazine’s website, (April 24, 2009). Two essays have been published in anthologies:  “I’m Going to College- Not You!: Surviving the College Search with My Child.” (St. Martin’s Press, 2010), and “Knit One, Purl Two: Life Lessons from Knitting” in Wisdom of our Mothers. (Familia Books, 2010). A newspaper reporter before becoming a teacher, Lisa writes for professional journals and for Education Update, a newspaper based in New York City. ( Her interviews include authors, college presidents, scientists, and artists, among others, including Miles Dean in February 2009. She met Dean while serving as an educational consultant in Newark, NJ public schools and interviewed him for many months.   Lisa holds a BA from Vassar College and an MA in Urban Education from New Jersey City University.  She has three children, three grandchildren, and loves to cycle, knit, read, write, and cook.

Nothing like a group of kids to teach you some stuff.  Like public speaking and answering questions.

My sister Madeline teaches at a small elementary school in Silver Spring, Maryland. I had gone to watch her third graders perform a play. An ESOL teacher, she had adapted Sam Swope’s The Araboolies of Liberty Street ( into a musical, retelling the story using well known melodies. Before the performance, I visited with a class of 4th graders, who Madeline team-teaches with another teacher. Madeline had introduced a biography unit with my book as an example. She’d given the class a copy of the book and explained how I’d written a story about an unknown person who rode his horse across the country. The point was to show the students that biographies could be about all types of people, not just celebrities.

The students were equally excited to meet me—Ms. Taylor’s sister.  Their questions about her and me were adorable:

Q: Did you pick on Ms. Taylor when she was little?

A: No

Q: Why are you smaller?

A: I said maybe it was nutrition.

Q:  Do you like her?

A: Of course, I love her.

And then:  “Did she help you write the book?”

That required a bit more thought.

I explained about the acknowledgments, how I listed family and friends who had helped me in various ways.  And I told the children the truth.

Writing is solitary. It’s not like a job where you punch a time clock in the morning and at the end of the day and go home. It’s not like arriving at school to greet students as they step off the bus, shepherd them into your classroom, and then back to the bus after school.

It takes self-discipline to sit before a computer screen and write a book.

As a journalist writing my first book, I shared how different writing a newspaper or magazine article is compared to a book. The first are short and usually accomplished in a brief amount of time. A book is longer and can take years and years.

So yes, Madeline helped me write. I’d talk to her most days. She listened to me complain about rejection letters from agents, about how my subject- the person I wrote about – wasn’t cooperating, wasn’t giving me time for interviews, wasn’t as passionate about the book as me. She’d read early chapters and made suggestions. She’s been an advocate of the book with her friends and in school.

Yet when it comes to help writing, I did it myself. And I think that’s an important lesson.

They asked why I wrote this book.  I told them how I met Miles Dean while working as a literacy consultant in the same school as him, heard about his cross-country journey on horseback, and that I convinced him it would be a great book.

“Did you have fun writing the book?”

Another terrific question that I suspect adults wouldn’t ask.

“Yes! I had fun. I loved the research and reading I did, I loved visiting Miles on his ranch, helping feed the horses, and then conducting the interviews, taping him using an old-fashioned cassette player, transcribing the tapes, and then shaping the story.  And I loved the process of writing!”

I told the children, “You don’t embark on this type of project unless you’re having fun.”

“What is it like being an author?”

Children tend to repeat each other’s questions, asking in different ways.

“It’s great! I love talking to groups about my book! I like playing with words and rearranging the paragraphs. I like that I became so passionate about a subject, believed in the story so much that I could write a book about it.”

“Oh, you showed perseverance?” a student asked, not raising her hand, but so excited to be participating and using a vocabulary word she’d learned.

“Yes. Perseverance.”  You have to keep going even when you get rejected. Even when other people, including your friends and family think you’re a bit crazy to be so consumed with the project. “

“What should I do if I want to be an author?”

“Start writing, keep writing, and never give up.”

Lisa K. Winkler’s book, On the Trail of the Ancestors: A Black Cowboy’s Ride Across America is available via her website:, Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and independent bookstores.