Rage and Redemption

March 19, 2010 at 4:09 pm Leave a comment

I figure every teacher has pet peeves. For example, I was recently shocked to learn that an entire table full of teachers I’d met prohibited the slang usage of “cool,” “sucks,” and “awesome” in their classrooms. The prohibition was unanimous, myself excluded. (Not only do I not forbid these words, but I use them myself! The only speech I forbid in my high school classroom, other than your obvious profanity, is using language of gender/sexual orientation as hate speech.)

But I digress.

My kids know that my second-biggest hot-button issues is plagiarism and cheating. (For the first biggest, see above.) It’s one of my first big lectures of the year. They know – have often seen – that I will pick up both the copier’s and the provider’s papers and tear them both up. They know that I will confiscate homework that I suspect is being copied for another class and give it to that teacher, to be handled however that teacher sees fit.

And this week, some of them know that I will give zeroes and call home for plagiarized papers.

You may be wondering why this warrants a blog entry. After all, plagiarism and cheating is just something that teachers have to deal with from time to time, right?

NOT NEWS: Students are lazy. NEWS: Students plagiarize simple half-page chapter summaries. FARK: Multiple students each turn in 10+ assignments copied word-for-word off of SparkNotes.com.

Kiddo #1 (we’ll call him Jesse) turned in four of his assignments stapled together, and another six stapled together, all late. I graded the four first – or rather, I glanced at the four and realized immediately that Jesse had no more written those summaries than flown to the moon for breakfast. An excerpt from his summary of chapter 13 of To Kill a Mockingbird:

Various ladies bake her cakes and invite her over for some coffee. She soon becomes an integral part of the town’s social life. Aunt Alexandra explains that she should stay with the children for a while to give them a feminine influence. Jem and Scout lack the pride that Aunt Alexandra considers commensurate with being a Finch.

And the corresponding sentences from SparkNotes:

Various ladies in the town bake her cakes and have her over for some coffee, and she soon becomes an integral part of the town’s social life. Aunt Alexandra explains that she should stay with the children for a while, to give them a “feminine influence.” However, Jem and Scout lack the pride that Aunt Alexandra considers commensurate with being a Finch.

After discovering that these four had been blatantly plagiarized, I went to the stack of six summaries. These, too, had been plagiarized, although he’d been a little smarter (or sloppier?) about it.

Jesse’s version:

In Chapter 8 Maycomb endures its first real winter, enough to close school. Jem and scout took as much snow as they could from Miss Maudies yard and put it in their yard. There wasn’t quite enough snow to make a snowman, they made a figure out of mud and covered it with snow to make it look like it is a real snowman.

SparkNotes’s version:

For the first time in years, Maycomb endures a real winter. There is even light snowfall, an event rare enough for school to be closed. Jem and Scout haul as much snow as they could from Miss Maudie’s yard to their own. Since there is not enough snow to make a real snowman, they build a small figure out of dirt and cover it with snow.

I ended up calling his mom at work, because I couldn’t reach her at home. Then, because it was ten assignments and not just one, I “had to” write Jesse up. That’s in quotes because I wanted Jesse to have some administrative consequences, in addition to the zeroes he’d receive on the homework. I didn’t want him expelled or anything, but an hour or two scrubbing lunch tables seemed like it might convince him not to do it again.

(Of course, I’d forgotten that CHS refuses to actually penalize students for anything, and that I’d have to argue with the dean to get him to even meet with the kid – but that’s nothing I want to write about, if only for the sake of my blood pressure.)

Then, today, I came across another student who had done the same damned thing. This came after finding 2-3 students who had plagiarized a single chapter summary, so my irritation level was already riding high. And then I realize that Kiddo #2 – he can be Simon – had channeled SparkNotes on one assignment, so I go back to his previous ones and realize that they’ve all been plagiarized, too. (Boys and girls, if you’re going to plagiarize, be good at it. Slip up once, and your teacher will suspect EVERYTHING and will go back to find out what she missed.)

Anyway, I called his mom, left a calm explanatory message on her cell phone, entered in the zeroes, and wrote Simon up. (It’s a teacher work day today, so no students.)

I was fuming. When a student plagiarizes like this, I’m not just disappointed and frustrated – I’m insulted and angry. It says to me that the student not only thought my assignment was a waste of time, but that they consider me too stupid to catch on. It feels like a slap in the face. Of course, I’m a professional, so I don’t let the kids know that I’m taking it personally – anger is a tool that must be used with surgical precision, if at all, in this profession. So my phone call to mom, and my referral slip, and my notes in the gradebook are all cool and calm. But under the surface, my anger, it is angry.

And then Simon walked into my classroom.

Three things are immediately clear. First, his mom got my message, and she has spoken to him. Second, he is trying really hard not to cry. Three, he’s either coming from or going to some sort of athletic practice.

I sit down with him at a table and we begin to talk. He tells me that with basketball, and some family trouble, that he started getting behind and thought that copying off the internet was the only solution. I ask him if he couldn’t think of any other solution, and he says he should have come and talked to me. I talk to him about why I take plagiarism so seriously, and how I could have helped him if he’d come to talk to me instead of resorting to dishonesty. He is crying and I fall victim to the laws of physics, specifically that it is impossible to stay hard-hearted toward a sixteen-year-old boy in tears. The Hulk recedes and I find myself reassuring him that he’s not going to get expelled, that he’s not even going to get suspended, that he’s probably going to get two lunch detentions at the worst, and that he’s not even going to fail my class. I hand him a kleenex. He asks me, between sniffs, if he’s going to get kicked off the track team. I assure him that I hadn’t even considered talking to his coach, that I figured this was a “dumb kid mistake” and not done maliciously, that I was definitely wanting him to stay on the track team. It turns out he has track practice in five minutes. I tell him to go wash his face and have a good weekend. It is an act of sheer willpower not to hug him as he stands to leave.

The funny thing is, I’m not even angry about Jesse’s plagiarism now, even though he hasn’t apologized and has only talked to me to ask if he can redo them for partial credit. All I needed, it seems, was for someone to show some remorse. And now I don’t feel angry. I feel a little sad and sick, but maybe I deserve that.

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Entry filed under: BAD BEHAVIOR, STUDENTS.

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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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