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Literature Unit: Talking About Truth

By Peter Boysen

This is a set of activities that will engage your students and focus on the concept of truth. They can be used as part of a unit on Avi's "Nothing But the Truth", or with other works that look at the meaning of "truth" as a theme.

Whose Truth is It, Anyway?

One intriguing activity for students in the middle of Avi's Nothing But the Truth has to do with putting together a role-play scenario which most of them will be familiar with.

Split your class into groups of three. One person is an assistant principal, and the other two have been in a fight. Have each of the fight participants write an individual account of what happened. To make this a bit easier, you can prepare a third-person description of the fight for them both to read and think about how they would have "seen" things, or you can let them come up with their own versions.

Then, have the principal write an official "report" about what happened and decide on a punishment for both of the students involved.

Once all three points of view are down on paper, have the class come together as a whole group. Take up one group's reports, and if you have a document camera, put each paragraph side by side -- contrasting the two fighters' papers first. Have the class point out differences in the wording of the two "stories."

Then, put the principal's report up on the screen, and ask the students to point out elements from the two reports that the principal used in the "official" one.

Truth in Reporting

Often, news outlets will skew their reporting of events based on biases in their editorial departments. For example, you can look at the way Fox News and CNN reported the Justice Department's lawsuit against an Arizona law making illegal immigration a state crime. Fox News generally has a reputation for having a conservative take on affairs, while CNN has a reputation for being more on the liberal side.

You can use these news stories, or samples of your own choosing, but you just want to give your students two different perspectives on the same issue. Have students read the articles side by side, marking different word choices, differences in tone, and differences in the opinions that appear while the students read the articles.

Then, have students make a Venn diagram. In the middle section, have students identify elements that appear in both news stories. These will more than likely be the facts of the story.

Then, in the outer sections, have students indicate differences in opinion and differences in word choice. The purpose of this is to show the students how even fairly minor instances of word choice can dramatically affect meaning.

Finally, after students have read, marked their papers, and finished their Venn diagrams, have them gather in pairs. Each pair needs to come up with a list of what is "true" from the story -- factually true, not subjectively true. Each pair should end up with a list of facts from the two stories. Then, point out how much of the news stories consisted of opinion, rather than fact.

Truth in Avi's Novel

Don't do this activity until you've reached the very end of Avi's Nothing But the Truth. That way, your students' memory of the events is more likely to be just as muddled as the people who are reading about the events in other parts of the country.

Have students take a normal sheet of notebook or computer paper and draw a circle in the middle, about the size of the bottom of a soda can. In that circle, have them write, in a sentence or phrase, what Philip Malloy actually did in Miss Narwin's room to get in trouble.

Then, have them write Philip's name beneath the circle. Next, have them make other circles around the page -- one for Ted Griffen, one for Superintendent Seymour, Mr. Malloy, Dr. Palleni, Dr. Doane, and Miss Narwin. Have the students write each name below a circle. Inside the circle, write what that person believes to have happened.

On the branches connecting Philip's circle with the outer circles, write how that person changed the story of what originally happened. Some of the changes will be unintentional.

On the back, write how the lives of the characters were changed as a result of the events of the story. Some changes are very good for that particular character (Ted Griffen gets elected to the school board), while others are not so good (Miss Narwin is sent to remedial training and ponders retirement).

The results should form the basis for a very interesting discussion on the truth.