Turning Hour Project uses novel to prevent teenage suicide

Published: Saturday, April 1, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, March 31, 2006 at 10:44 p.m.
When Devan Schnecker thinks back to lectures she's heard about teen suicide, she rolls her eyes and mimics the inaudible adult voices from Charlie Brown cartoons.
The facts and statistics left her more bored than informed.
But when the Gainesville High School freshman read a teenage narrator's thoughts about suicide in "The Turning Hour," a novel based in Gainesville, she paid attention.
"It's not like reading Shakespeare or Mark Twain," the 15-year-old said. "This girl has sarcasm and wit, like so many of us.
"Reading about a high schooler who has the same problems as any other teenager, we can relate to that much better than if it was about a middle-aged accountant or whatever."
That's why Alachua County Public School teachers think their new suicide-prevention program will work: because it's centered around the book, which follows a girl as she attempts suicide, survives and struggles to move on with her life. Florida author Shelley Fraser Mickle wrote the book and worked with local educators to create lesson plans that meet state literacy standards and get teens talking about suicide.
It was introduced in high-school classrooms across the county this month, but the Turning Hour Project attracted statewide attention even before students got their books. It's one of eight recipients of the Governor's Award for Outstanding Programs in Suicide Prevention.
It's not typical to approach suicide so openly in schools, so GHS language-arts teacher Carolyn Glasgow sent notes home warning families about it and giving them the option to pull their children out for an alternate assignment. Two students decided to opt out, but the other 28 stayed.
"I couldn't believe they were going to let us read something like that," said Candice Williams, 14. "At first, I didn't want to read a book about suicide because I thought it'd be sad, but then I started reading it and I started liking it."
To Glasgow, it's a relief to have a whole book to address the subject, rather than the short suicide disclaimer she gives before teaching "Romeo and Juliet." She said the romanticized image of suicide in Shakespeare's play bothers her, especially at a time when she believes teen suicide is becoming a national epidemic.
In her 10 years at GHS, Glasgow said, her school has dealt with several students' suicides, adding that it's hard on everyone. It leaves teachers and friends feeling guilty and wondering how they could have missed whatever signs there may have been, she said.
The teacher has her students answer discussion questions about the book and write journal entries that only she and a school counselor read. She said the students' responses have convinced her that the project is changing lives.
"This book makes the kids laugh, it makes them cry, but mostly it makes them think," she said. It's so popular with her ninth-grade honors students, in fact, students in her other classes have asked to study the book, too.
In Glasgow's classroom this week, Devan raised her hand to explain the feelings the main character had toward the end of the book.
"She realizes she's falling in love with life again, and she realizes how important she is to people," she said.
In her own life, Devan said she reacted with anger when a close friend of hers attempted suicide several years ago.
"I was a little mad at my friend because I wondered how she could be so selfish. The book changed my mind and made me realize she had problems, too," Devan said.
"Even though it might seem like someone's life is perfect, it very rarely is," added her classmate, Mike Yost. "Previously, I just looked at (suicide) as a stupid thing to do. Now I can see why people might think about it, but also that there's a way to talk them out of it."
The project was five years in the making, said Mary Ann Wagner, the district's language-arts director. It was designed "to create a sense of skills in students so they can not only deal with their own feelings, but also with those of their peers," she said.
Wagner plans to show the Turning Hour Project to language-arts directors from other districts at a meeting this fall, and a University of Florida graduate student is tracking the high schoolers' perceptions about suicide to determine whether they genuinely change from the project's start to its end.
Tiffany Pakkala can be reached at 338-3111 or pakkalt@ gvillesun.com

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