A weekend interview with writing instructor Melissa Forney
When seeking a leg up in teaching their children to write, many Florida school teachers turn to Melissa Forney. Based in Orange City, Forney writes novels that schools can use as starting points for getting students interested in reading and writing. She also offers strategies teachers can use to make writing fun. Forney talked with reporter Jeff Solochek while visiting Sand Pine Elementary in Wesley Chapel.
I am interested in why you come to schools like Sand Pine and talk to students about writing.
I am an educator. And I love the philosophies of John Dewey, that education should be hands-on. And we've gotten so far away from that with testing. And as a child I was a big reader and I found I just lost myself in books. And I wanted to recreate that experience for kids to have outdoor books that at least mentally took them outdoors. No technology. Everything about climbing trees and swimming in brooks and learning about the outdoor fun stuff. And now I love going to schools that are actually implementing things where kids are on their bellies shooting marbles, or having a slingshot contest, that kind of thing. I just think this makes education memorable for them. That's the main reason.
Were you surprised to see how many children are into your books and the things that you are doing?
I am surprised and of course extremely gratified. When I went to graduate school to become an author for children, the philosophy was that you wrote for yourself. But I never adhered to that. I always think about the children who will read my books as I'm writing them. The book might be plotted ahead of time. But as I'm writing I might think, 'If I did this, the kids will love it.' Or, 'If I did this twist, kids would be sad but we would get through it.' So I do have them in mind when I write. So when I see that kids are excited about it, of course I'm thrilled.
How did you decide to come here [to Wesley Chapel]? Do you just tour Florida?
We do this for a living. We train teachers in the area or writing, and we do assemblies for kids and we help prepare kids, oddly enough, for writing testing. But the reason I come to some schools like this -- I'm just coming on my own time and I'm not getting paid for this -- is because I want to support teachers who will teach it like this. And the three teachers ... It's so unusual to have fifth-grade teachers so involved in this. Usually you see it for fourth-grade teachers. But these teachers came to my training in the summer and they were so excited about this story. And then I began to get feedback from them through e-mail, several e-mails. And I can tell when people are sincere about implementing this. So I just wanted to be a support, be maybe the icing on the cake that would make this fun for them and the kids. ...
Have you always been in Florida?
I was born and raised in the Panama Canal Zone. My dad was one of the lock masters for the Panama Canal. And I grew up in the jungle there. My sister and I read books there like tomboys do, outdoors. And when I came to the United States I taught in Louisiana, Mississippi and then Florida. I was in the classroom until 1993. And for the past 15 years I've been teaching teachers how to teach writing. That's my specialty.
If you had one thing that teachers should take away from your lessons, to make kids better writers and enjoy writing more, what would it be?
Do something memorable. We have kids 180 days a year. How many of those days do you remember? Not many. So what kind of an impact do we have long-range? Do something memorable.
I was with a school just a few days ago who had a Teddy Bodain hoop-de-doo outdoors. They had men frying venison and quail. They had kids dancing to banjo and guitar music. Like they've done here. That makes education memorable. Kids will remember it, not just because I wrote it, but because we did something cool, we learned about another era that's based on Florida history.