Wednesday, 6 May 2009

They'll Never Know

Ilker sidles up to me, eyes shifty, like I'm a drug dealer and he's shaky for a fix. "Tee-cha, when pop quiz?"

I try not to sigh. "You know I can't tell you that! It's a pop quiz. That means no one knows when it will be." I crane my neck, trying to look past him. "The others are still in the dungeon," I say meaningfully, hoping he'll get my gist.

But no such luck.

Instead, he moves closer, regarding me intently. "Tomorrow?"

"Look, I don't know." I give him a stern look. "And even if I did, I wouldn't tell you. Now go back and finish the tour of the castle!"

"What we have to write?"

I give in and let out a long sigh. "You know I can't tell you that either!"

"History of castle? Peoples live in castle?"

"Maybe." Shrugging, I look up at the sky. It is a brilliant, beautiful blue, not a cloud in sight, if you don't count Ilker.

He all but wrings his hands. "Pleeeease!"

He won't believe me, but I really don't know. The powers that be don't tell us: they're suspicious our students will winkle it out of us. The powers that be know that our students feel about writing the same way Superman feels about Kryptonite.

Three days later it happens: we teachers are given the three questions the students have to answer about their field trip to our local castle. I announce the pop quiz and write the questions on the board. The class absorbs them in stunned silence:

1) Describe the castle's location.

2) Describe the history of the castle, and some of the castle's features.

3) What did you like or dislike about your visit to the castle?

Now I am sick and tired of my students copying things off the internet and trying to pass them off as their own work, so I read them the riot act on this. I write PLAGIARISM on the board in 3-inch letters. I tell them loudly and clearly that even one copied sentence will earn them a zero grade -- for the slower ones, I demonstrate this by writing two identical sentences on the board with an X through them and a big frowning face -- and I repeat the whole spiel for good measure.

And when I collect their papers, here is the very first one I see:

1) XX Castle is situated in the southern section of YY City and is a stunning backdrop to the harbor.

2) Largely built during the Hellenistic-Roman period the castle is thought to date back to the eighth century B.C. It is likely that the castle was built to defend the city from Arab raids. With its horseshoe-shaped main tower, Byzantium style of fortification, and embrasures for archery defense, the castle is a unique example of its type.

3) I very think XX Castle small so small room and very bad Dungeons because it's have got a poor people but Very beatifull view very beatiful tours.

A quick glance confirms my worst fears: I've got half a dozen more almost exactly like it

I just manage to collar one of the plagiarists before he leaves the classroom.

"Alper, you did not write this." It's hard to keep the rage out of my voice.

He is all injured protestations, his voice an indignant whine. "No, tee-cha, I write!"

I suck in my breath and pull out a pen. "Okay," I hiss, pointing to my notebook. "Show me. Write me just one sentence now."

He takes the pen with a show of bravado and goes through the motions, but all he can produce is XX Castle is before he puts down the pen with a weak smile. "Tee-cha, how you know?"

I shake my head and snap the notebook shut. "Zero points!"

"How you know I don't write?" he asks again. I give in: I roll my eyes so hard it almost counts as aerobic exercise.

But I don't even bother to answer: if he has to ask, he'll never know.


Eryl Shields said...

I roll my eyes so hard it almost counts as aerobic exercise.Ha!

Wouldn't it be great to think that these students will eventually get it? Somehow I don't think most of them ever will though.

Martha Flynn said...

Wow! I wouldn't even try to pass off the answer to that second question as MY own.

Bish Denham said...

Oh man! Blind, deaf and dumb. I wonder if they'd copy like that if they were writing in their own language?

Angela said...

Oh Man! Talk about some frustrating days being a teecha...

Mary Witzl said...

Eryl -- I'm a big eye roller, actually. With three teenage girls around, I had to be. But around my Turkish delights, I roll them so hard I work up a sweat.

Some of these kids WILL get it: I am NOT going to give up. But the serial plagiarists? They're on their own.

Martha -- Me neither! I wanted to tell my plagiarists that I can hardly spell 'embrasure', but I didn't bother. They obviously think I'm stupid enough already.

Bish -- Yes, that is exactly it. They've never had to write in Turkish OR English before, so the only way they can cope is by copying. I grilled my very best student and learned that she keeps a diary in Turkish -- and loves to write.

Angela -- I swear, I almost tore my hair. Still, I have fun telling the stories after the fact.

Anonymous said...

I could write pages and pages about this, but instead I will say that yes, I also constantly amazed my students with my super- ability to spot plagiarism, and I also was insulted by their assumption that they could fool me.

I will share, instead, my very favorite example of plagiarism. I had a student writing on Romeo and Juliet. He found an internet site on Romeo and Juliet-themed weddings, so in the middle of a discussion of the plot (plagiarized from a different site) I would find something like “Dress the men in pirate-style shirts and show a bit of hairy chest! Or, go whole hog and rent period costumes—ask your groomsmen first though, as some will refuse to wear tights!”
I was angry, but at the same time it brought me a lot of joy. And the anger hasn't lasted but the joy has endured.

Snacks from the cruise buffet said...

I cringe and am humbled when I think how I must sound when I speak the language I'm trying to learn. One of my more memorable mistakes was when I asked a lady at a bakery if I could help her as she struggled to open up her car door while holding a big box of pastries. But instead of saying "Can I help you?", I said, "Can you help me?" and for a moment she looked at me as if I was a beggar. But that was six months ago. Hopefully today, I'd get it right!

Charlie said...

I look up at the sky. It is a brilliant, beautiful blue, not a cloud in sight, if you don't count Ilker.That's a good one.

It looks like, though, that I won't be slipping anything past you. Rats. That means I have to think and write for myself.

Robert the Skeptic said...

I have heard that in China the concept of "intellectual property" is either beyond comprehension or outright ignored. My faher-in-laws text book "Temperate Zone Pomology" was blatantly copied and reprinted in Chinese and other languages and sold from China. He receives no royalties from these illegal copies.

I wonder if these students intellectually cannot make the mental connection between plagiarism and ethical behavior?

kara said...

you should bring back the dunce cap for punishment.

wonder what happened to the dunce cap, anyway.

Robin said...

Oh, Mary, you're becoming so cynical. Why would you think "the castle is situated in the southern section of the city, and is a stunning backdrop to the harbor" was plagiarized? Poor little misunderstood Alper.

"Stunning backdrop to the harbor". Hahahaha!

Christy said...

Oh, the nerve! I don't know how you kept your head on your shoulders.

Mary Witzl said...

PN -- I love that example! I've had students who did this too: one kid copied something and neglected to change an entire sentence in French. He hadn't even realized the quote was in a different language. When I pointed it out to him, he actually tried to deny it. And another kid who can't spell the word 'about' had 'schizophrenic' and 'inveterate' spelled correctly in his so-called original work. To them, English is nothing but a confusing mish-mash; a block of text is a block of text.

But you're right: the fun outlives the irritation. Or it will, once enough time has passed.

SftCB -- The reason I can share these embarrassing mistakes of my students is partly because I've made plenty of them myself. I have a lot of compassion for what they're going through -- language learning is hard work and it's tough on the ego! I've certainly made my share of ridiculous, humiliating mistakes. Some of my students listen to me when I tell them my stories of language learning embarrassments; most just can't wait to escape...

Charlie -- Oh, I'm a tough cookie all right -- no putting anything over on me, my good man!

Actually, most of my students have not been taught to think; that is part of the problem. You know that saying about the unexamined life not being worth living? Every time I go to teach, I am forced to ponder that one.

Robert -- I've heard this too. The way you learn Chinese -- and Japanese too for that matter -- is by copying the work of the masters. But copyright infringement is a whole different thing and people do know better, whatever the culture; the whole issue of intellectual property is a huge can of worms.

(If your father was into pomology and wrote a book on the subject, my father probably had it: he grew avocados and was always going on about gas exchanges and fruit development.)

Kara -- I'd need a whole hat shop full of them for my guys. But believe me, the zero points punishment will sting.

Robin -- I had to laugh at that one too -- after the fact. They still think I'm Einstein for figuring out they didn't write it. Which makes me wonder just how stupid they thought I was.

Some of these kids are consummate liars and, when they've missed weeks of classes, will give all sorts of outrageous excuses that can break your heart. Until you see them out in the corridor yakking away with their friends, laughing their heads off...

Christy -- How I kept my hands from slapping their faces was even more amazing!

Kim Ayres said...

It's the parent thing, isn't it - when your kid gets caught doing something wrong, part of you is angry they did it, but of you feels far more annoyed they were stupid enough to get caught.

Or at least it's that way with me...

Mary Witzl said...

Kim -- Yes, that is it. While the adult part of me is infuriated that they cheated, the 17-year-old part of me thinks that if I'd done it, I'd have been a lot smarter about it.

adrienne said...

Oh, that's funny.
I very think he ran out of material by #3.

Anne Spollen said...

I once got a book report from a seventh grader that ended with this line; Putnam and Sons. He just copied the blurb with absolutely no thought.

I just can't get past the outright NERVE of him thinking you wouldn't notice when it's your native tongue and you are the TEACHER. Duh. Gah. Hello.

Well, I guess it's weirdly comforting to know students will try what they can all over the world...

Mary Witzl said...

Adrienne -- Didn't he, though? He obviously hadn't anticipated that question! And I can't imagine the answer was on Wikipedia either.

Anne -- Ha! When will they ever learn?

Perhaps for your seventh grader and and certainly for my students, English is nothing more than a senseless bunch of gibberish. Any block of English text might as well be the same as another, so they reason that anything they come up with will be equal to anything they find on Wikipedia or in a professionally done travel brochure. Intriguing, really, what goes on in their minds.

Barbara Martin said...

I loved this post, and I understand your frustrations. The students will eventually get it. Time heals all things.