Plagiarizing is Bad Enough When There’s a Point

June 30, 2008 at 7:30 pm Leave a comment

Lucy is one of those students that you just like to teach. She’s got a happy personality, a good attitude, and a strong work ethic. Lucy sits up front, always has a smile, and is a good sport when you pick on her for being a ditz. The fact that she has managed to get through junior high with a fourth-grade (at best) understanding of grammar is easily forgiven when you are sitting next to her, trying to calm her down as she bawls about her terror of failing English 9 again. It isn’t that she isn’t trying – she tries her little butt off. (Case in point: she asked for extra help with grammar, and after we spoke for a while we determined that what helped Lucy most was practice. I gave her a metric ton of grammar activities: worksheets, paper games, supplementary reading, you name it. She came in the next day with half of it done, and had the rest done the following day.)

Lucy is a musician and a songwriter, and although her grammar is spotty she has a nice way with words. When she came up to me, blushing, with a poem she had written for her best friend, I praised it with sincerity. It wasn’t a work of genius, but it wouldn’t  have seemed out of place on  a Hallmark greeting card.

The next day, Lucy brought me another poem, and then another. She brought me a poem she had written for her brother, and it was remarkably good. It was so good, in fact, that I asked if she might consider writing a “companion poem” – this one about girls instead of boys. She enthusiastically agreed that this would be a nice idea, and two days later brought me a matching poem more appropriate for a sister. I praised this poem as well and, while she was busy doing something else, typed a copy of it into my email to keep as a student sample. When I was done, I asked if I could borrow the boy poem to do the same.

As Lucy rummaged through her folder, she spoke to me: “My mom even helped me put it on the computer! I wanted to put it online, so she helped me put it online. I have it on my MySpace, too. But I don’t like to put my name online, so I put it under ‘Author Unknown’.”

If you’re an educator or a parent (or any other experienced judge of character) you are already wincing, but let me tell you – Lucy could have been reciting the Gettysburg Address and I still would have known she was being dishonest. She had that tone of voice, that cadence, that screams I know I may be caught, I’m covering for myself on the fly, quick, let’s throw off the dumb teacher by preemptively explaining the discrepancy. (In retrospect, the fact that she jumped immediately to this point probably indicates that she has plagiarized, and been caught, in the past.)

Anyway, my heart sank. I said nothing but took the proffered poem to my desk and, instead of opening up my email, went to Google. It didn’t take long to find the poem online – not just on MySpace or some cheesy free website Lucy’s mom might have set up, but everywhere. Mr. Bees and I did a little bit of digging later and discovered the poem copyrighted as early as 1999, when Lucy would have been a kindergartner. By 2000, both poems were being sold on cross-stitch kits online. Lucy hadn’t bothered to change so much as a phrase, although in her copying she had misspelled several words.

Why in the world would Lucy do such a thing? It’s one thing – deplorable, but understandable – when a student plagiarizes for an assignment. But Lucy was plagiarizing something for no reason – something that she had written for herself. Or, as the case may be, had written to impress me. And I was impressed, all right – impressed that Lucy, of all people, would be the person I would catch lying to me.

I discovered Lucy’s transgression after school on Friday, and it haunted me all weekend. The poems weren’t an assignment, so there was no real academic action to be taken. On the other hand, next year Lucy will be in tenth grade (the year with the huge poetry unit, worth a sizeable chunk of their grade) at a local parochial school with an exceptionally strict morality policy. If Lucy pulls something like this again, it will have a permanent and devastating effect on her transcript, and possibly her future.

My mind had been mostly made up on Friday evening, but on Monday I was sure I knew what I had to do. After school I asked Lucy to meet with me. We went into a neighboring teacher’s classroom, because this is a litigious society and it never hurts to have a witness. She knew something was wrong, but she didn’t know what.

“I want to talk to you about poetry,” I said. She tensed, but kept the same happy look on her face. I went on:

I was really impressed by what you were doing with your poems – so impressed,  in fact, that I wanted to keep a copy for myself – a sample of student work. When I asked to see the boy poem, though… well, Lucy, most teachers get pretty good at reading people, and at detecting it when someone isn’t being completely honest. And when you told me about putting the poem online, you were giving off all of the signals that you were not telling me the full truth.

She tried to protest; I continued.

I went online, Lucy, and I think you know what I found. That poem is online everywhere. I found it in Boy Scout newsletters dating back to 1999, and I think we both know you were too young to have written that poem in 1999. The girl poem is online, too, and it is just as old. They were selling these poems on cross-stitch kits eight years ago.

The denials – and the waterworks – began. I asked her to let me finish.

I understand that you are saying that you didn’t plagiarize these poems,  but that doesn’t change the fact that it is, unfortunately, simply not your work. You can see the 1999 newsletter right here.

She looked at the date, flipped through it, found “her” poem, threw the newsletter back onto her desk. All the time she is crying that she doesn’t understand, that she didn’t do it, that her cousin helped her write it (oh, really?), that her mom really did help her put it on the internet, that she has written lots of poems…

Lucy, I don’t doubt that you write poems. I don’t doubt that you are a beautiful writer. I am not even going to say that you did this on purpose, because sometimes people plagiarize on accident. We memorize something and don’t know it, for example. Or maybe your cousin plagiarized it and you didn’t realize.

Lucy was really fighting the tears, and frankly I’m surprised that she held onto them this well. She’s a big weeper, and this is a Big Upset.

Now Lucy, you’re not in trouble. This isn’t an assignment. In fact, I spent a long time trying to decide if I wanted to say anything to you or not, because I knew how much it would upset you. In the end, though, I had to say something because I care very much about you and don’t want anything bad to happen to you. I need to you listen to me for a few minutes, okay?

I had to repeat that last sentence about a dozen times in order to stem her flow of denials and protests.

Next year you are going to be in tenth grade, and things are different in high school than they are in junior high. You are going to be doing a major poetry project, if Parochial High School’s curriculum is anything like Urban School District’s, and part of that is going to be writing your own poetry. Teachers are very good at spotting plagiarism, Lucy. The only reason I didn’t catch this immediately is because I have had you for only three weeks and haven’t had much of a chance to learn your writing style yet. But anything that you can find online, a teacher will find online. And when you are in high school – especially one with such a strict moral code – they won’t just sit you down like I am and tell you that you screwed up. At the best, your parents will be called. The VP or principal will get involved. You will get a zero on the assignment – and we’re talking about an assignment big enough to fail you for a semester. You will probably get a detention. You will get a permanent mark on your record, which can have a serious impact on your ability to get accepted to certain schools after you graduate. This will be a very big deal, a very bad deal. I do not want to see that happen to you, Lucy, and that is why I am talking to you now.

The tears were flowing in earnest now, and Lucy was still in frantic denial mode. I repeated my insincere assurance that I believed it was possible that she was innocent of intentional wrongdoing, and added my sincere assurance that I wasn’t mad at her and that this didn’t change my opinion of her.

Regardless of whether you did this intentionally or not, Lucy, the important thing is that you never do it again. And frankly, you know if something you write is your own work, or if it is something you heard before. You need to be more careful. This is a serious issue.

Lucy wondered how she could tell if something she wrote was her own or not. I suggested she give Google a shot, reiterating that anything she could find on Google by typing in “poetry” could be found more easily by typing in a specific line from a poem. I know I’m giving her the main tool that teachers use to catch plagiarists, and I know that a determined adolescent liar will use that information to find a way around getting caught – but I still feel like Lucy is a good kid. At the very least, she is now a guilt-ridden kid who knows that she can get caught. And there is a part of me – a naive new-teacher part of me – that very much wants to believe that Lucy did not deliberately copy the poem. I want to believe that the girl who can’t remember what a verb is from one day to the next somehow memorized two longish poems, word-for-word, and rewrote them without ever realizing that her inspiration was external. So I’m giving her something resembling the benefit of the doubt, and hoping that my warning is heeded.

It won’t be.

And, because fate is the way fate is, she will probably get away with it. That will lead to a bigger cheat, which will start her down a road of unpunished minor ethical violations, until she eats away her own character and good reputation and finds herself an entirely different person than the blithe, good-intentioned little child I have come to know. That’s the cynical, old-teacher part of me talking, and I suspect that she has a pretty good idea of how these things work.

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Entry filed under: BAD DAY. Tags: , , .

Furious. >:( Guess what? I are an English teacher!

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The Bee’s Knees

This is the teaching journal of a student first-year second-year THIRD-YEAR (!!!) English teacher. I am writing this blog as a reflection for myself, a way to keep friends and family updated, and a sharing-ground between other educators online. I love comments!

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