Setting Analysis and Vocabulary Exercises for Nothing but the Truth
written by: Peter Boysen
• edited by: Trent Lorcher
• updated: 3/2/2012
What is the setting of Nothing But the Truth? What political and educational vocabulary do students need to understand what is going on in this documentary novel?
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The Importance of Setting in This Book
Harrison High School, where Philip Malloy attends school, is in a small town. This is important for several reasons. In most school districts, particularly in larger cities, the school budget does not require an annual public election. The school board approves the budget, and the school board members are elected. This fact makes the superintendent extremely vulnerable to public pressure. Dr. Seymour must do everything he can to keep the press positive about the school system if he wants the schools to be solvent from year to year.
Also, in a larger town or city, or in a more urban school district, Philip would not have been suspended for humming during the national anthem. It is likely that, in a bigger school system, behavior like Philip's would be tolerated. As a result, the scandal would not have gone national as quickly as it did.
Once your class has finished reading Nothing But the Truth, you can open a class with a brainstorming activity. Have your students to divide a sheet of paper into two columns, and have your students list similarities and differences between their school and the school that Philip attends.
Beyond the issue of the small town, the rest of the setting of the story is fairly generic. However, there are some activities that you can do to educate your students about the way that school systems operate.
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The Politics of Education: Show Your Students How the System Works
Depending on the politics of your school, the reading of Nothing But the Truth could be an excellent opportunity to teach your students about the way that school boards operate in your area. After consulting with your building principal, you could invite a member from your school board to come to your class and talk about the way that your local school board approves budgets. If you prepare the school board member with a summary of the story, he or she could talk about reasons why such an event could (or could never) happen in your district. Words like budget, consent agenda, quorum, tabling, and other terms having to do with parliamentary procedure could be part of a unit capped by a presentation from your school board member regarding the way that the board goes about its business.
What is your school's policy about behavior during the pledge of allegiance? Does your school play the national anthem each day? Laws vary by state. You could have your building principal, or one of the assistants, come in and talk to your class about those policies, and about the way that the school handles communication. If Dr. Palleni had taken a little bit more time to talk to Philip, Philip's mother, and Miss Narwin, the whole situation could have turned out a lot differently. What measures does your school's principal take to ensure that issues like the one that Philip faced do not escalate into controversies that go outside the district and into the public eye?
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So, What is Truth, Anyway?
What actually happened? Have students write down the actual events in Miss Narwin's homeroom class that started the whole situation going. Include mention of Philip's failure and conflicts with Miss Narwin's English class, and then move on to what happened the two times that Philip was sent to Dr. Palleni's office.
Then, identify the version that Ted Griffen takes and runs with in his attempt to get elected to the school board. How are these two versions of the truth different?
What is true about Miss Narwin's perceptions of her own teaching abilities? How does Dr. Seymour use these perceptions to get Ted Griffen off his back? How does this end up backfiring for Dr. Seymour?
An excellent writing activity for an advanced/Pre-AP class would be to ask your students which is the truth -- the events as they occurred in class, or as they were reported. Which is the truth? What makes the truth true, in other words?