Kids don't know `plagiarism,' but they know about cheating

August 17, 2002|By GREGORY KANE

ONCE UPON a time, there was a very little boy with a very large forehead who lived in West Baltimore. One day his mommy moved him and his five brothers and sisters to the Forest Park section of Northwest Baltimore.

The kid with the big forehead - me - attended Mordechai Gist Elementary School. As a sixth-grader, I and the rest of the class were given an assignment: Write an original story.

My lazy, no-good bum side got the better of me. Rather than think of an original story, I decided to repeat one I'd read in a book when I attended one of the schools in my old neighborhood. Surely, I figured, Mordechai Gist students and teachers wouldn't have the same books.

Why would I think such a thing? When I was a child, I was very, very stupid. (With hard work, perseverance and plenty of reading, I've been able to catapult myself into the ranks of the just plain stupid.) How stupid was I? When my family moved into public housing, first at Lexington Terrace and later at the Murphy Homes, I thought it was a step up.

Anyway, some classmates read my story before the teacher had a chance to collect the assignments. Imagine my chagrin when they told me they had read the story in a book and that I had copied it, that I had cheated.

To heck with chagrin. Imagine my panic.

What to do? What to do? With little time left, I managed to cobble together a story of my own. Reading it afterward, I proudly told myself it was every bit as good, if not better, than the tale I copied. I pulled a couple of triceps patting myself on the back.

That was my first - and last - experience with plagiarism. I learned my lesson: Don't do it. And I didn't even know what the word plagiarism meant at the time, but, to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's observation about pornography, I knew it when I did it.

What a difference 40 years makes. Today, kids much older - 10th-graders, even college students - are saying they don't know it when they do it. When Christine Pelton, a teacher in Piper, Kan., flunked 28 students who plagiarized a biology assignment in December, the parents of the flunked raised an uproar. The children didn't know what they were doing, the parents moaned. Their precious little dears didn't even know what plagiarism meant.

Really? I get the feeling that along about, oh, first, second grade, every child knows what the word copycat means. In my day, it was a character flaw, the little person's way of expressing what that big word plagiarism meant. We might not have known the technical word for it, but we knew it when we did it.

So did those 28 high school sophomores in Piper. So did their parents. But if you've heard this story by now, you know who prevailed when the parents went whining before the local school board about the injustice that had been done to their cheating little dears.

Pelton, who appeared on Oprah Winfrey's show earlier this week, said she was ordered to amend her grading policy. The assignment some students plagiarized was worth 50 percent of the final grade. Pelton was ordered to reduce it to 30 percent, grade on a curve and pass the plagiarists. Some students who received A's the first time around got lower grades as a result of the school board's cave-in act.

Kind of shatters that deep, abiding and immovable faith you had in public education, doesn't it?

But even private, highfalutin colleges have problems with students who come down with cases of creative copying. I teach an opinion writing class in the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University. The assignment I gave was simple: watch the movie Bad Day at Black Rock and write a review.

One student went immediately to the Internet - where Pelton's students went, cyberspace apparently being the first resource of the plagiarist - and read a review of the film on something called moviereviews. com. Some passages of the student's review were copied word for word from the Internet version. Her explanation? She'd read the review, but swears she didn't know how exact sentences from it got in hers.

Several news stories have revealed that plagiarism has reached nearly epidemic proportions. If it's to be held in check, it'll be because of teachers like Pelton. That is, if they stick around. Pelton resigned rather than pass cheaters. Mike Adams, her principal at Piper High School, followed her out the door.

Pelton said on Winfrey's show that she wants to teach again. But we should hope something more lucrative awaits her. The movie studios that would be swarming around her if her tale were a salacious one should consider filming her story. Maybe Pelton could write a book about her experience. If she does, one thing will be certain.

We'll know she didn't plagiarize it.

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