I should know not to take things so personally. After eight and a half years of teaching, I should know by now that it's ridiculous to be personally offended by student actions that are outside my control. Yes, I have a lot of influence over students and I'm responsible for them in many ways, but plagiarism is something that still blindsides me once in a while. Maybe it's because it doesn't happen very often in my class anymore. Since I've slowly evolved to put freedom in my student writers' hands, most of them are so excited to be able to write about what they want that any plagiarism is usually small and unintended, more of a teachable moment than a cheating issue. We learn about plagiarism and integrity with writing from the very beginning of the year, and I rarely have to do much beyond that. So yes, I was surprised yesterday to find two separate instances of blatant plagiarism in one class period of 8th grade trimester finals. (Both plagiarized poems, weirdly enough.)
I can't explain why it hurts so much. It shouldn't. Plagiarism exists at every level, and is always a possibility when dealing with writing. I did not cause this plagiarism. I did not tell my students that it was okay to copy and paste another person's work into their writing. I didn't ignore the topic of plagiarism and fail to have lessons about it and why it's a problem. They did not do this to personally hurt me. They did it because they were underprepared, or overwhelmed, or just plain lazy. But they did not do it to cause harm.
Then why am I so hurt? Why do I feel slighted?
Maybe it's because they robbed themselves of one opportunity for creativity. I give my students so much freedom with what they can write, and it hurts to see them waste that in order to follow the path that leads farthest away from creative expression. Maybe it's because some part of my low self-esteem whispers in my ear and says, They think you are stupid or uncaring and that you will not notice. Maybe I'm so upset because plagiarism means they don't understand how much I value my student writers. It means they don't know that I love reading their work and talking about it with them, and that plagiarism robs us of that opportunity and connection. Or maybe it hurts because plagiarism reminds me that some kids just really despise writing and will do anything to avoid it. My life's work is the object of someone else's disdain.
Whatever their reasons for plagiarism, whatever my reasons for hurt feelings over it, instances of plagiarism are always a teachable moment, for me and students. Other than the hurt, my other major feeling was relief. I am so glad I comment on student drafts multiple times before the finals are due. I am so glad I am no longer a "gotcha" English teacher who only reads papers after the damage is done. I can nip this plagiarism while my writers are still writing, and before it has any impact on their grades. I can take care of the wound before it becomes fatal. Plagiarism becomes part of the learning and writing process instead of a punishable offense at the end.
I teach 7th and 8th grade English in rural Iowa and hope to reflect, connect, and share with other English teachers. Iowa Council of Teachers of English Executive Board member. Iowa Writing Project superfan. UNI MA:TESS graduate.