Friday, November 30, 2007

Should Students Fail for "a Little" Plagiarism?

I don’t have a problem enforcing grades in general. Where I struggle is when students complete the most grade-significant assignment, such as the research essay, and then I find plagiarism, copy/paste plagiarism that their report has found for them. All they needed to do was fix their essay before giving it to me, but many students cry fatigue, or confusion, or time crunch. They don’t dispute the plagiarism; they dispute that plagiarizing in the research essay means they fail the assignment.

Do I fail these students? So many students don’t even turn in the research essay that it feels like a waste to fail the ones who plagiarize, too. “At least I did it!” they tell me. “I’ll fix it!” Grabbing the nearest pen, they slap on quotation marks and some parentheses as I wonder how they know which resource to place within the two half moons. Does accuracy matter to them? I get the sense that they think my insistence that their work be 100% documented is as esoteric and arbitrary as if I required Roman numerals or Latin inscriptions. It feels like absurd bourgeois academic bologna to them. “I only missed a few sources,” they’ll explain. “I don’t understand why it’s such a big deal. Look!” they say as they show me the freshly inked page, “All better!”

I’ve spent weeks trying to explain it is a big deal. I have mini-lessons, group work, book passages, and online interactive activities to help them understand the nuances of academic integrity and documentation. We discuss how they have joined the world of academia and must attentively use the words and ideas of others. We even have that snazzy software,, which highlights the matches found on the Internet for them. All they need to do is check to ensure that those matches are, indeed, documented. Many students tell me candidly, “Oh, I didn’t check my report. I felt good about my essay. I didn’t know about that one part. How ‘bout I fix it for you?” The idea that I wanted them to find the plagiarism, that I’m trying to teach a man to fish here, falls flat. The cold clutch in my stomach predicts that honest documentation is the new spelling: 100% accuracy is an unrealistic goal that no rubric will require.

We are at odds, these students and I. My department and I think that plagiarizing on the research essay means a failing grade, and my students think plagiarizing means losing points. For the past two days, students have argued with me over this issue. No one argues that he or she didn’t plagiarize. My students argue that their lives are too difficult for the kind of attention I required. I’ve been told terrible stories about divorce battles, cancer treatments, and financial woe. Students have begged. They’ve cried. I’ve cried. I feel a little crazy—maybe plagiarizing isn’t such a big deal when it’s not the whole essay? Am I suppressing these students? Isn’t the fact that they tried enough? Must their work meet a standard of honesty, too? (I haven’t really read them yet, so there’s yet to be a question of quality…)

The process sickens me. I lose my perspective (and my desire to teach). Why do they turn this on me? This expectation has been made clear in the syllabus, the directions, my lessons. Why am I such a draconian person for expecting their work to be properly documented when that’s what I have been teaching them how to do and what 75% of their classmates have done? I’ve been teaching thirteen years, and I cry about this almost every semester. Reading the newspaper or watching the news, I’ll see reports about “lowered standards in our public schools,” and I’ll think, “I can’t be a part of that. Reduction of expectations in the public school is akin to systematic oppression of the poor.” Yet when I’m in the middle of this grading plight, when they beg me and explain their lives are too difficult to write with attention and integrity, to please, please, please not fail them, that they’ve never written such a big assignment before and that failing it would crush their spirits, I’m so unsure that my expectations have merit. The world feels topsy-turvy, and my nerves vibrate in my hands and neck as I worry what the right priority should be…

This semester, I’ve decided those students can write another research essay on another topic with completely new sources. I’m letting it be due after the winter holiday, which means I probably won’t be teaching them when it comes due, that I’ll have to do grade change forms in the midst of starting a new term. If they plagiarize again, even “just a little,” they get the “F.” If they do a good job meeting the requirements, including the shocking standard of academic integrity, then they earn no more than a 70 on the assignment. The tears have been wiped away. My concession is satisfactory. Am I a chump or a compassionate educator?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Collecting Research Essays is Only the Beginning

If they made a TV reality show called So You Think You can be an English Teacher, grading research essays would be the final elimination round. Like leaning on a pole with one foot off the ground, grading the research essay requires stamina, focus, and dedication. This week I collect research essays from five class sections of English I, and I’ve been preparing myself…

Unlike the competitors on many reality shows who must only worry about themselves, English teachers confronting stacks of research essays must ensure that students are also prepared. Truly bad essays in the pile, the ones that don’t follow the most basic of directions, can turn a grader’s spirits more seriously than a rock in the road can sprain an ankle. To prevent such injury to her most precious grading instrument—her ability to care and think reading the essays carefully actually matters—a grader must ensure that her students write the best possible essays, which often requires pre-grading. Like any strategy, pre-grading tries to invest time and energy early on to help things fall into place at the end. By evaluating thesis statements, quality of sources, Works Cited MLA format, and rough drafts, graders can smoke out future problems.

To best prepare for the endurance required with research essay grading, pre-grading should end at least five days before the actual collection due date. Between pre-grading and collection, graders need rest and distraction. Watching movies and carbo-loading so that life does in fact seem worth living can help. The lurking enemy for English teachers in this final round of serious semester grading is not other teachers successfully whipping through their piles, but apathy, losing steam. By banking up on life’s short-term pleasures, teachers can build a reserve of joy and hope for the week of close grading ahead.

The first day after collection, the grader may want to look over the entire stack for Big Problems first. Students who did not use enough sources, or who wrote in the wrong voice, or whose report shows flagrant plagiarism, need to be dealt with in a calm way. Negotiating what happens next with these students takes lots of energy that may not be available after the entire pile has been graded. Here’s where the pre-grading energy really pays off. Teachers who have records of letting students know at different intervals that they needed to make changes can more readily enforce grading policies now. Parents, counselors, and students themselves respond differently when chances to recover have already been ignored by student writers. Knowing that the Big Problems have been dealt with already will buoy the spirit of the grader as she faces the stack, too.

Now comes the actual grading. Essay after essay, the grader needs to summon up interest and respond with encouraging words. Grading for days…Sixty-five essays left… “No, I can’t watch a movie. I know it’s Saturday night!” Fifty essays left… “No, I’ll have to call her back.” Thirty essays left… “Three before a cup a coffee…Two more before I get a glass of water…Grade the Works Cited before checking email…” Ten left. Ten! Only ten left! Other assignments wait to be graded, piling up on the corner of my desk. Students ask often (constantly?), “Do you have my essay?” If this point in my semester did occur on a reality show, I would film my one-on-one confessions with the camera during this time, wiping away tears as I sobbed about not knowing if I could finish reading all of them and beating my fists against my thighs as I wondered how I could have made the fact that I wanted it double-spaced more clear. Every twenty-fifth essay or so, I encounter a student who has written a beautiful, thoughtful, well-edited essay, and I suck it in like pure oxygen as I continue. Then, like dental work, the stack finally ends. Each semester it feels like a miracle, but in truth, grading the research essay successfully results from stamina, focus, and dedication. No, we don’t win a million dollars. However, paying active audience to students’ written product, really reading what they write, may just seed tomorrow’s thinkers. That’s a million dollar hope that I bank on each time I dive into the pile.

Good luck with grading, everybody! I’d love to know more winning strategies…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, November 16, 2007

NYC "'Re-Brand[s]' Academic Achievement"

When I taught in an urban school district outside of a major U.S. city in the mid to late 90’s, I often complained that I had no currency with my students. Being marked late, earning failing grades, losing my approval, falling behind in lessons and feeling lost, risking long-term achievement—all currencies my teachers had used on me—did not make much of an impression on some of my more difficult students because they didn’t “buy-in” to the education system.

Well, New York City plans to take the economic metaphor for this problem one step further. As New York Times writer Jennifer Medina explains in “Reaching Out to Students When They Talk and Text,” the city plans to launch a pilot program in twenty-four schools this January that “’re-brand[s]’ academic achievement.”

Medina writes, “The plan, designed by Roland G. Fryer, a Harvard University economist who is overseeing the school system’s program of paying students who do well on tests, was approved by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg last week. Dr. Fryer said he viewed the project in economic terms, arguing that while the administration’s previous efforts have focused on changing the ‘supply’ at schools, this one is proposing to change the ‘demand’ for education by making students want to seek learning.” The city hasn’t settled on an exact plan yet, but essentially, the idea is to give students in the pilot schools a cell phone and send them advertising and text messages, perhaps even celebrity phone calls, all geared towards school achievement. In addition, students will be awarded prizes such as phone minutes and concert tickets for specific achievement. Teachers will be encouraged to provide extra academic sources through the phones as well.

I had a dream about this program last night. I remembered how my high-achieving college roommate found out our sophomore year that her parents started paying her younger sisters $5 for each A they earned. My friend had brought home almost all A’s sans financial reward. She wrote her parents a bill for her twelve years of schooling, which they paid sheepishly. Her sisters have finished high school and college by now, but arguably, my friend still has a deeper love of learning and reading. I thought about capitalism and how it depresses me. Many of my current students resent having to study literature. “How will this help me be a computer engineer? How will this help me be a nurse?” I find students want job training rather than education. The concept of being wealthy with knowledge does not exist as it once did. Many of my students see learning as something to be gotten through in order to earn their threshold salary. It makes me wonder why people of their generation will teach, for the salary isn’t what motivates most of us.

However, then I thought back to the students I didn’t reach because I couldn’t share the concept of deferred gratification during the ten months that I knew them. My parents taught me my love of education. My household of people who played Scrabble and knew so much more during a game of Trivial Pursuit than I did fostered in me a genuine desire to know more. I find New York City’s idea of extrinsic motivation distasteful, but what if it really does save kids? I witnessed first hand how students who feel disenfranchised and who don’t have a strong family to fall back on can just get swept into the current of drugs and crime. Lots of sixteen year olds have things they want; if students don’t think they’ll one day earn them with a paycheck, resisting shoplifting can seem futile. Clearly, this economic program to increase student “demand” is kissing cousins with bribing students, but if it drags them through the high school degree, might it be worth it? Or are we officially proclaiming that it’s just about the money? Will this motivate students to cheat to get their “reward” since actually learning the content still won’t be on the horizon? Is it worth a try?

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Friday, November 9, 2007

Students Who Sustain Me

Amidst my students who ignore directions, procrastinate, and plagiarize, shine the students for whom I do this whole teaching thing. A good percentage of my students work hard and honestly, but they treat researching and writing like tooth hygiene: annoying but not worth the penalty of skipping it. For a smaller, but significant percentage of my students, researching and writing becomes addictive. They fall in love with the intoxication of knowledge for knowledge’s sake. I try to breathe these students and their enthusiasm in; its nectar needs to sustain me through grading the pile, after all…

One student wrote a rough draft of a thesis statement in favor of one group in an ethical dilemma, but when he turned in the final draft, he had completely switched sides. I don’t really care which side of the argument students choose, but I commented on his switch. “You noticed that, huh? Yeah, I wrote the first one before I’d really read any of the articles. That first argument was my opinion based on just stuff I’d heard other people say. But when I started reading the research, I just couldn’t feel that way anymore, so I switched my argument around.” Seriously, a speech like that from a student makes me weep. That’s all I’m really going for here, for students to learn to find their own information and form their own opinions. That’s why a democracy educates everyone, right? We don’t always get to see that kind of growth during one semester, so when I catch a glimpse, I savor it…

Another student came to me with her revelations. “I thought I knew about this subject,” she exclaimed. “But so much has happened with it in the courts during the last year or two that the whole issue is changing! This issue is so important to me, but I haven’t been paying much attention. I didn’t realize that the way our government works can change things so quickly! I’m going to write my Senator, and I’m talking to my family about making a donation to some non-profits that work on it, too.” Okay, I wrote about this student in my journal. I wrote a sticky note about it and stuck it to my monitor. While I’m weeding out those who copy/paste, other students are truly starting to care about their society and are beginning to understand how research and writing impact their relationship to the big, bureaucratic machine.

These students count as so much more than their total number or percentage. They will be leaders throughout their lives. I write about them to praise them, but also, to force them to occupy my mind a little longer. I obsess over those who quit or cheat or fail to engage; somehow, it is much harder to remember those who learn to fly. These students fill my spirit, and I believe their excitement will inspire many of their fellow students as well.

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Teacher

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Limiting Research Topics: Controlling or Supportive?

In my teacher preparation classes back in the early ‘90s, experts advocated allowing students to self-sponsor their topics for their writing, and I agreed whole-heartedly. My identity at twenty still aligned more closely with the student than the instructor, and I resented all the topics teachers had foisted upon me across the years. Fifteen years later, I realize I have switched camps.

I still believe in all the reasons to let students self-sponsor topics for their writing, but I tell myself I don’t have time to let that process unfurl and flourish. I have benchmarks to meet by specific deadlines, and allowing students to pursue a topic that may not work out seems like a luxury of time I can’t afford. Besides, rather than teaching twenty-five or thirty students at a time in a writing workshop atmosphere, I teach over a hundred at a time, and keeping them all at roughly the same stage of process through an essay helps me navigate that volume. Through years of experience, I’ve learned which topics are more difficult to research or which topics’ arguments in professional journals might be too dense to comprehend in the time I’m giving my students. Currently, I’m grading my students’ research essay thesis statements. For their research essay, students pick off a list of about fifty topics. If students have another idea that isn’t on the list, they need to get my approval, and much of the time, they get it.

The times students don’t get my approval on a self-sponsored research essay topic, their topics probably fall in one of two categories: too difficult or too likely to be faith based. I had a student who struggled with syntax want to write about the American economy going off the gold standard, how that changed the twentieth century economy, and what dangers it poses for the dollar in the future. Oh my! In my opinion as a writing teacher, that topic requires a writer who has already conquered sentence clarity. For the student in question, I said no. The student isn’t happy with me, but I paternalistically think I’ve improved that student’s chance of writing a passing research essay.

Besides topics I think are too difficult, I ask students to avoid arguments I fear will be faith based. I don’t allow students to write about general abortion laws; they can write about selective abortion as the result of amniocentesis, but that’s about it. I don’t allow discussions about sex education or prayer in public schools either. Why? Well, in my hard-won experience, students have a tendency to write faith based arguments for those topics, which are so difficult to grade. I’m trying to help students develop the ability to write a sustained, supported, logical argument, and faith exists beyond those criteria, which I know as a person of faith. When a student writes, “God teaches us that this is wrong,” it pains me to write, “In the United States, laws need to represent those people who don’t believe in God, too—why else is this wrong? What secular reasons can you provide?” over and over and over again. Faith based writing is important, but because it doesn’t rely upon causal reasoning, it’s difficult to evaluate. I tend to skip over it which seems like shortchanging the students. I’ve determined that students can learn more in research writing by not being able to use faith based arguments in the first place.

As I write my reasons, I feel confident that they best serve my students. However, I mourn for the writing teacher I imagined I would be in contrast to who I actually am. In my college pedagogy, students’ self sponsored topics related mostly to personal writing. In my classes, I do almost no personal writing with my students in accordance to the curriculum and learning objectives set by my school system. We focus on persuasive, third person essays. While we do some journaling and response writing, that’s not the writing I respond to the most or reinforce as most important. My curriculum focuses on teaching how to write an argument, and so to does my determination to work on what I think students will need the most in their lives as college students, as voters, as individuals researching information for their wellness or business pursuits. It’s just that I’ve looked up and realized I am now the teacher who foists the topics, and that makes me a little sad…

co-posted on Between Classes: Living a Balanced Life as a Quality Educator