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Why this novel?
At the end of the year, I ask my students to write advice and words of encouragement for next year’s class. I present their wisdom during my first-day-of-school presentation. For my juniors (both honors and regular), this phrase (or something similar) is the most common: Read Nineteen Minutes. Out of all of the books (class, literature circle, and independent novels) I have offered to my students, Jodi Picoult’s Nineteen Minutes is by far the favorite. When it comes to book critiques, there is nothing more powerful than a peer recommendation. Furthermore, I have watched this novel transform my students as readers, writers, and literary critics. One of my frequent-ISS flyers told me that he had never read a schoolbook, and I challenged him to honestly read the first fifty pages before he gave up. During a three-day ISS vacation, he was bored enough to read it, but this time, he didn’t stop. When he returned to class, he stayed after the bell so he could discuss the novel with me. Everyday he came to class eager to participate, and he didn’t return to ISS for the rest of the unit.
A graduate Education professor told my class that this novel changes people and should be a required read for all teachers. I fully agree.
Typically, when students are handed this 455-page novel, they flip through to see the font size, which only causes their eyes to grow wider. However, after reading the first section (24 pages), they stop complaining about length. Picoult weaves a story of a school shooting together by manipulating time and perspective. The first 24 pages depict the morning of the shooting; by the end of this section, our shooter (Peter) is in custody and Josie (apparent protagonist) is saved by a detective.
Page 25 backs up the story to the moment when Josie’s mom met Peter’s mom. Picoult interrupts her timeline by blending present (shooting and its aftermath) and the past (main characters’ histories). While reading the flashbacks, readers find out that Peter is the victim of bullying, and by middle school, he is abandoned by his childhood best-friend, Josie, because she favors popularity. Picoult uses this section to illustrate the dangerous snowball effect of bullying. In the present section, readers sympathize with Josie as she grieves for her friends and her former life. Jordan, Peter’s lawyer, prepares a defense centering on the psychological effects of battered woman syndrome (applies similar idea to Peter’s experience as a bullying victim). Readers navigate through the emotional roller coaster as Picoult presents her story in third person limited (each section focuses on a different character). True to Picoult’s style, there is an unforeseen twist in the last ten pages.
Discussion Points/Thematic Ideas
Depending on the unit (literature circles vs class novel), I focused on different real world topics, but I never ran out of discussion points, and typically, my students directed the conversation more than I did. One class spent an entire period discussing Josie’s abusive relationship with Matt and if an interaction would be defined as rape (counselor joined the discussion).
1.) Bullying and school violence: One of my in-class essay prompts asks students to analyze Peter’s tipping point and/or what single event most affected his decision. Naturally, students struggle to select just one moment. During discussions we analyze how the school system (teachers, parents, students, administrators) failed to stop the bullying. This opens the door for us to talk about our school community and what can be done to change the culture. We talk about how tragedy alters a community. This topic encourages informational text (Columbine, psychology, statistics).
2.) Appearance vs Reality: Before the shooting (within the first 10 pages), readers are introduced to Josie and her self-appearance conflict. She constantly struggles to hide who she is from her friends in favor of appearing to be who they want her to be. Most students resonate with Josie; they are constantly afraid of their peers outing them for being a phony. We talk about what Josie could have done differently to change outcomes. Students tend to have a love-hate relationship with Josie.
3.) Moral Ambiguity: As for Peter, we discuss how he appears to be an antagonist in the beginning, but after further reading, he is presented as a protagonist. One of my in-class essay prompts asks students to decide if Peter is a victim or a monster. Every student argues that he is a victim. However, at the beginning of the novel (after the first 25 pages), students label him as a monster, and most claim that nothing can excuse his actions. This creates an argument: Is Peter guilty? As we read the court case sections, we journal and discuss our thoughts. Before the verdict, we become the jury and decide Peter’s fate.
4.) Relationships: Picoult analyzes various relationships (parent-child, boyfriend-girlfriend, etc…). We discuss the characteristics of true friendships and “fake friendships.” Even though Josie and Peter don’t interact after the shooting, we spend several class periods discussing their relationship. We talk about how to best communicate with parents by analyzing conversations in the book. Most of our time is focused on Josie and the popular crowd. Students connect the characters’ interactions to those of The Great Gatsby (friends or alliances?). We rewrite the book by altering specific relationships for Peter.
These are the top content discussions, but classes have chosen to focus on other topics: depression, grief/coping mechanisms, revenge, peer pressure, etc… I could teach this novel every year for the rest of my career, and I am certain I would always discover a new topic.
The presentation of this novel is unique (though, traditional for Picoult): manipulation of time and perspective. Although each section is third-person limited, the reader is able to piece together sections in order to understand multiple characters’ perspectives. How would the story be different if Picoult only followed Peter or Josie? Are there too many followed characters? How do the minor characters’ perspectives affect the reader?
The ping-pong effect of present and past events is another discussion point. Why does Picoult begin with the shooting? Would the story be as effective if it was told in chronological order? How does the manipulation of time affect the reader’s experience?
I have taught this novel for the past four years, and every year is different. When we read it as an entire class, I place students in book clubs (same groups for the entire unit) for small group discussion and activities. Once a week (typically Friday), we come together for an entire class discussion. Sometimes I have them prepare questions and other times we choose from topics on the board. As best as possible, I try to not have an agenda for these whole-class discussions because I want the students to facilitate the conversation.
For literature circles, they develop “book club meetings” and complete activities. Ultimately, they work together to create a product (sparknotes-like review guide, Ted-Talk, etc…).
For individual assessments, students write an in-class essay (usually, I give them the choice of three discussion questions and they answer one in essay form). For my honors students this past year, they wrote an essay that responded to a critique of the novel. One student wrote a persuasive essay arguing that this novel should be mandatory reading for high school students.
Like an onion, this novel has numerous layers that lead to enrichment. Dare I say it, teaching this novel is my favorite unit.