Welcome to The Teachers Digest Interview Series. In this series, we will post interviews with authors and educational experts from around the world, twice a month.
This week we have with us, Margo L. Dill, a former elementary school teacher and the author of Maggie Mae, Detective Extraordinaire: The Case of the Missing Cookies (pic book), Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg (middle-grade), and Caught Between Two Curses (young adult).
Margo L. Dill is also a speaker, writing teacher and freelance editor, working for St. Charles School District, WOW! Women On Writing, High Hill Press and educational testing companies. She lives in St. Louis with her family.
1. Tell us about yourself, your work (school-wise and writing wise) and about your interests.
Before I became a full-time author, freelance editor/writer, and speaker/writing teacher, I taught elementary school for thirteen years in Missouri and then subbed at a private school for another four years in Illinois, preschool through fifth grade. I have taught a lot of different things—I’ve been a classroom teacher in 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades and also a writing teacher and Title I reading teacher. When my husband and I decided to have a baby, I got busy getting some work I could do from home, and I built a freelance business. I also worked hard on getting my books published, and so far, I have three for kids and teens!
2. You taught for 13 years in public schools in Missouri? Can you tell us a little bit about the public education system in the US?
The interesting thing about my experiences is that I taught in a small, rural school, where there was only one classroom per grade with about 20 to 25 students, and then moved to the St. Louis, Missouri area, where I taught in the biggest elementary school in Missouri with an average of 9 classrooms per grade. What I can tell you about both experiences is that kids in the United States are expected to do high quality work and harder skills earlier in today’s schools than when I was a child in the 1980s. Teachers are held accountable by principals, grade level chairs, school boards, and standardized tests. But the wonderful thing is that teachers are very supportive of one another and share and help each other with lesson plans, morale, challenging student behaviors and more. Some of my best friends are people that I taught with over 15 years ago. Finally, teachers are expected to teach to every student—wherever the student’s skill levels are. So in a classroom of 20 students, teachers could have children with low, average, and advanced skills, and one classroom teacher is supposed to meet all those needs.
3. Reading is an important skill. However, it is an uphill task to get children to read. What tips would you recommend for teachers who want to motivate their students to read?
There are two things that can help an unmotivated child to read. The first is finding something the child is interested in and giving him books that reach this interest. For example, my stepson is a reluctant reader, but he loves graphic novels. So, that’s what we check out from the library for recreational reading. He can work on comprehension skills with graphic novels just as well as with regular novels. Some kids love non-fiction, but we force fiction on them. Let them see how fun reading can be before we challenge them to read something outside their comfort zone.
Second, find a motivator for students. A restaurant here, Pizza Hut, used to have a reading program where kids could earn a personal pizza for reading so many books every month and writing the titles down. Some kids loved this—they loved pizza or loved recording what they read. Some hated it and never got a single pizza. Pizza was not a motivator for them. So find something they are willing to work toward and reward them when they finish a novel or if they make reading a habit.
4. Does reading out loud to students help them? Can you tell us a little bit about how it helps and if it is something most teachers should regularly do.
I think it does. I always read out loud to my students when I was a classroom teacher. I remember reading my 4th grade class Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone before it became so popular. They loved it. Reading aloud helps students with fluency and comprehension. Students who are auditory learners also benefit from hearing books read and not just reading themselves.
5. You are the author of three published books. Did you nurse aspirations of becoming a writer from an early on or was it something that was sparked by your years teaching?
I didn’t know I wanted to become a writer until I was already teaching for about five years. I always wrote—journals, stories, one-act plays—but never for publication, although sometimes to use with my students. Then I took a correspondence course on writing for children, and I fell in love with the creativity. I can’t imagine a world now where I am not writing.
6. Who do you find it easier to write for: children or young adults?
That’s a hard question. Both are challenging. Young adults are very critical in what they will read. You can not talk down to teenagers in any way, and you have to keep their interest. Their books are also longer. But children’s books, especially picture books, have such precise language that it can take an entire week to get 20 words sounding right on a page. I enjoy both processes, which is why I have books out for both age groups.
7. What is your schedule like when you’re writing?
I am the best in the morning, so I try to get up early before my family and write. However, I have a preschooler and stay home with her, and this is just not always possible. So, what I do is try to “schedule” writing time like you would a doctor’s appointment. At the beginning of the week, I look at what we have going on, and I figure out the times my husband or parents will help with my daughter and I can go write.
8. You’ve received glowing reviews for Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg for the accuracy of the setting as well as how realistic Anna’s story was told. Tell us a little bit about the conception of the book. How did you conceive the story?
When I taught 5th grade social studies, I read one paragraph about the Siege of Vicksburg and how the citizens lived in caves and had a remarkable survival story while the armies shot at each other and sent bombs back and forth. It just stuck out to me as a great setting for a novel for kids. Because I didn’t know a lot about the place or the 47-day siege, I went to Vicksburg on a research trip. When I returned, I had plenty of research and my main character, Anna Green. The rest just kind of came out from there.
9. Did your experience as a teacher ensure that Finding My Place: One Girl’s Strength at Vicksburg could also be used in classrooms as an educational supplement? How much research went into filling the book with small educational nuggets of information?
It definitely can be used in the classroom. There’s even an educator’s section in the back with extra resources, more information about the Siege and discussion questions for each part of the book. There is a fine balance as a historical fiction author of being true to your story and filling your book with the facts that historical fiction readers love. Before writing Finding My Place, I had talked to experts, visited Vicksburg, read books and trolled around the Internet. I had a lot of facts. The ones I thought I wanted to use for sure, I highlighted in my notebook to review as I wrote and see if I could fit them in without getting in the way of Anna’s story.
10. What was one of the most surprising things you learnt while writing your books?
How hard it is! It is extremely hard to finish a book to the quality that makes you happy as a writer. You can fiddle around with the words or plot for years. But you have to learn that after you’ve revised and you are barely changing anything, it’s time to send the story out into the world and look for a publisher or literary agent.
11. How hard is it to establish and maintain a career in writing?
As I said above, it’s extremely difficult, but so rewarding—just like teaching. Once you find someone to publish your books or if you decide to self-publish, that’s just the beginning. You have to market your books, and marketing can take as much time as writing can. You have to let the world know about the books until you become someone with a household name like Stephen King. You also have to keep producing new material and balance promoting your old books with finishing your new ones.
12. Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
If you are passionate about writing, then don’t give up. Write the stories in your heart and learn the craft. Then find someone or some resource to teach you the business side of writing, so readers can find your books. Persistence and determination are what help people succeed as a writer.
13. Would you like to share something about your upcoming projects?
I have a lot of projects and all are in different stages. I have a picture book that I want to shop around to literary agents as well as an almost-finished middle-grade novel about a boy who solves mysteries. Then I am working on a draft of a young adult novel about what happens in a community after a public shooting.
14. Is there anything else you would like to add that I haven’t included?
I would love for people to feel free to contact me on my website with questions, sign up for my newsletter and check out my books, which are all available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.com. My website is http://margodill.com/blog/ .
Thank you so much for the interview Margo! We hope our readers find this interview both enjoyable and informative. Watch this space for our upcoming interview with Nancy I. Sanders!