Years ago I sat next to the sunny window in my cavernous English classroom in Bulgaria, tired eyes on my computer. My I.B. seniors had put all their best work up onto multimedia blog portfolios, and I was trying to scan through them all. I had made it to Ivan’s, and I wondered what I would find. A very adult teenager, he always seemed like he was just playing along with me by attending my classes and doing his work. My peers had long since let me know his family owned a diamond store and was connected to the Bulgarian mafia.
I clicked into one of his pieces, apparently about his relationship with his little sister and an illness she had gone through. I read for a while and started to feel some deja vu. Hadn’t I just read something similar in Mina’s portfolio? Did they both have little sisters who’d been sick? I pulled up her personal narrative in another window to see if I was just starting to get confused after way too much grading.
The two pieces were exactly the same. Ivan apparently thought I wouldn’t notice if he copied Mina’s personal essay word for word.
Let’s pause for a moment and talk about how frustrating plagiarism is. How it feels like a breach of the relationships you’re trying to build with your students. It’s almost like a personal attack on you as a teacher.
There’s a lot of buzz on the internet about how to prevent and spot plagiarism. About how to “catch” students in the act. Earlier this year I interviewed Matt Miller, Google Classroom guru, about how to use Google classroom to teach more effectively and creatively. The teachers in my Facebook group, Creative High School English, asked me to ask him how teachers could lock students using Google Docs out of the internet so they couldn’t plagiarize.
Matt didn’t answer this at all the way I thought he would. I figured there was some obscure toggle button teachers could click to lock out pasting into Google Docs. Instead of sharing any such hack, Matt started talking about how we structure our assignments today, and how we might do it differently.
Immediately, I was so happy he had evaded my question.
Because his point really struck me. If we’re going to assign students to analyze the meaning of color in The Great Gatsby, we can expect them to have access to a thousand other papers on this subject.
This assignment is as old as that bit of family China gathering dust in the back of your cabinet.
But if we ask them to create a podcast in which they interview people in the community about their American dreams, and then connect those stories to the theme in The Great Gatsby, how many examples are out there to cheat from?
Maybe instead of talking so much about how to use Turnitin.com and what sorts of phrases to search the internet for as you read student papers, we’d be more productive (and so much happier) talking about how to make our assignments fresh and add elements that simply can’t be stolen from other places.
Now, I know it’s impossible to avoid plagiarism altogether. That’s why I shared my story at the beginning. If a student can steal a personal essay about a younger sibling from a friend in the class, then we know there’s simply no way to end the possibility of cheating completely.
But let’s have a little fun here, and talk about some ways to lock plagiarism out of our assignments, instead of out of our Google Docs.
Maybe plagiarism could lead us to more creativity, instead of more frustration.
The Argument One-Pager
One of the hardest assignments to police is the argumentative paper, so let’s start with that. Before we launch into all the fun stuff like making videos, recording podcasts, writing letters, entering writing contests, let’s deal with the reality that we often need to assign argument writing because argument writing is a primary component of major testing and also of getting what you want in life.
It’s not easy to come up with a writing prompt that some other teacher in some other class has not already given when it comes to canonical literature.
So if you need to assign this type of essay, consider starting it by having students create argument one-pagers in class. Let them figure out their theses, find their evidence, consider the counterargument, and begin making connections BEFORE THEY HAVE ACCESS TO THE INTERNET. Then let them know you want them to turn in this one-pager with their essay and the thesis and textual evidence in the essay should match the one-pager. You can also simply skip the essay and have them turn in the one-pagers. Either way, they’ve had the opportunity to create an original argument and figure out how to back it up, all on their own.
The Real-World Argument
I’ve written before about the power of making argument feel more relevant to students by connecting the prompt to their real lives. Crafting an assignment that relates directly to your students and community is another easy way to avoid internet plagiarism. Have students draft a letter to the school board proposing a new elective for your school and giving evidence for why their idea is important. Or ask them to write an article for the school paper taking a side on an issue that matters to them in modern politics or in your local community.
The New York Times sponsors a number of contests throughout the year. This year’s lineup included a contest to connect the news to students’ lives, a blackout poetry contest, an editorial contest, a vocabulary video contest featuring the New York Times words of the day, and more. These types of work are not easy to plagiarize, especially if you do some of the work in class.
When it comes to creative writing, there probably are a lot of stories, novellas, plays and poems out there that could be plagiarized. But if you include an element of making into your assignment, students will have a harder time using stolen work. You know how I love Angela Stockman’s work. Her idea to have students make first, and write second, is so helpful in getting kids on the write track (ha ha, see what I did there?).
Before launching into a short story writing unit, take the time to let students create their characters using art or maker materials. Or ask them to take photos outside of school and put them together into a collage that will inspire the setting of their story. Have them turn in their maker pieces alongside their stories (or better yet, display them in a gallery in your classroom!). It will be pretty hard to steal a short story off the internet that features a character your student painted in class.
This is big. The core skills of ELA – reading, writing, and speaking – are the same as they have been for centuries. But the way students will apply them in the modern world is not.
Why not let them start practicing those skills in the format of their assignments now, instead of waiting to see if they can make the leap someday when they’re trying to build a website for their own business, launch a podcast to share their experiences in the military, or make social media posts for their bakery?
Requiring great writing in the format of modern media-based assignments gives students a chance to see the relevance of what they’re doing in the world today. It’s also tough to plagiarize a series of travel blog posts in the voice of Huck Finn, a video explaining what dystopia is and offering an argument about why it’s so popular with teenagers today, or a mock Instagram story about ways Greek mythology shows up in our culture now.
Make it Personal
Another big-picture way to make assignments hard to plagiarize is to find ways to make them personal. For example, while reading The Odyssey, you could ask students to write about how someone they know has gone through the hero’s journey. They will need to explain the hero’s journey and connect it to this someone. Not easy to copy that from the internet!
Perhaps while studying The Harlem Renaissance, students could choose a poem and explore its themes while connecting them to experiences in their own lives.
While it’s important for students to be able to write without inserting themselves at times, it’s also important for them to be able to write opinions and make connections between literature and their own values, beliefs and experiences. So for an assignment or two throughout the year, making it personal is a great way to help stop plagiarism and put a creative, personal spin on your study.
The Toughest Nut to Crack: Research
Now I’ve reached the point in the post where I want to share some brilliant strategies for assigning research in such a way that students won’t plagiarize.
Psssst. Got any ideas?
OK, so this is a tough egg to poach. A frilly blouse that’s hard to fold. A ladder leaning precariously against a house. But enough with my metaphors. They’re probably not distracting you from the issue.
When it comes to research, I think it’s very much about process. There’s not an easy way to restructure a research assignment to make sure that students don’t steal lines right out of their research materials. But here’s what I’m thinking.
Step #1: Have students find and bring in the books and articles they want to use for their work. Use graphic organizers to have them write down relevant quotations and key ideas. Have them cite those ideas clearly on the graphic organizers. Help them do it right if they need help. THIS STEP IS THE MOST IMPORTANT. By being really intentional here and walking students carefully through this in class, hopefully we can eliminate a lot of trouble later.
Step #2: Have the kids put away their books and articles. Far away. The books go back to the library. The articles get piled at the front of the class. Devices get turned off.
Step #3: Right on those graphic organizers, have them rewrite the key ideas in their own words. At this point, they’ve got what they need to access this research without plagiarizing.