Friday, July 31, 2009

Thoughts on Plagarism and Homeschool Writing Composition

While researching something having nothing to do with plagarism I came across this article written by a homeschooling mother named Susan Richman who also works with homeschooled students teaching writing composition, even AP high school classes. This is a detailed and interesting article about plagarism in general and how even homeschooled students plagarize sometimes. She winds up placing blame on two things, one is that the parents never taught the children about plagarizing and the other is that some students who would never steal objects have no problem stealing the words of others.

I would add that an issue is that some homeschooling parents don't know about plagarism and they may plagarize in their own life, so how can we expect them to teach their children NOT to plagarize? I would start by citing the homeschool blogging parents who regularly lift written content and photographs from the Internet and publish it as their own.

Here is a great paragraph from the article about homeschooled AP high school students:

"All offenders were strongly religious kids, from good families— the types of kids who would never steal things. They just didn’t think of words as things. Interesting enough, in my current studies of Hebrew I’ve found the fascinating fact that the Hebrew word ‘devar’ means both ‘word’ and ‘thing’— in Jewish tradition, stealing words is equal with stealing anything else, and much attention is given to the ethics of properly attributing ideas to their original source. I think more attention needs to be given to this in our homeschooling, to specifically telling our children about plagiarizing, and not just hoping they’ll somehow make the connection. Some won’t."

The author of the article also makes an interesting point that perhaps students mistakenly think that being told to write a report gets mistakenly thought of as them handwriting it; the students don't think of a writing assignment as writing composition and instead think it is more of an exercise in penmanship. I don't know if that is true or not.

I recall in fourth grade in public school, being taught how to research using encylopedias and using two or three sources then using our own words. We were taught about plagarism. I was torn, back when writing a paper on a single topic, mine was tomatoes, that it was hard to write on a topic I didn't know about. Every piece of content came from researched sources and the topic was so simple that the research didn't involve much tale spinning or fact connection (unlike something like what today's history book writers have to do to go through many original source documents to gather facts from different sources and weave them all together). To make matters worse for me as a student in fourth grade, when I wrote in my report that the tomato was both a fruit and a vegetable the teacher marked it wrong, chastized me in red ink saying that it was NOT a fruit and lowered my grade. Having been certain from my research that indeed it was true, I learned right then and there that teachers not only don't know everything but can be wrong about a fact and sometimes may impart wrong facts to their students. That was a major turning point for me to see teachers as humans who are flawed, they were knocked off their pedestal in my eyes, after that they had to prove themselves credible to me rather than getting automatic respect.

Anyway my point is that schools and courses (even for homeschoolers) place a burden on students by forcing them to write about topics that are 'worthy' and 'school-ish' but that children know little about. Perhaps in the elementary and middle school grades more emphasis could be given to allow students the freedom to write and practice writing composition about topics they know a lot of and can speak about "off the top of their heads". (I have done this with my homeschooled children with success.)

To me the primary goal is to teach writing composition, not research, in the elementary and middle school years, for those assignments. I think we should remember for younger children these are two separate things and the research part can bog the child down, confuse them as well as introduce temptation to bypass the actual writing composition part by plagarizing.

For one assignment for my older son, at ten, I had him write about the Yu-Gi-Oh! trading card game. He knew so much from reading about it for months from many different articles in a magazine and from playing it a lot, and talking with other players. At eleven I had him write about the xbox360 game console and how it differs from and is superior to other game consoles, and why.

I see the traditional teaching of writing composition as so flawed that I've struggled to accept recommendations from writing curriculum. I will confess that perhaps at their young ages my children have done less writing composition with the written word than if they'd attended public school. (For years they have practiced oral narration which is the summarization and composition process done in the mind then using spoken words though. To my mind a key part of writing composition is intaking information, understanding it, summarizing it, editing it, and retelling it, all processes of the mind that can be done without ever putting pencil to paper, if the teacher is able to listen to the student's spoken word. I understand the burden that institutional schooling brings with its a high pupil to low teacher ratio makes evaluation of written work more feasible. That issue/fact combined with the idea of teaching easy concepts done in short assignments for years and years, building up to harder and longer work produced as a teaching philosophy which is used in American public schools.) However the work my children have done has been of higher quality than typical public school assignments (read a story and write two sentences, a common homework assignment in second grade).

I would argue that this could be an area of study in which formal instruction need not be done regularly starting at too-young ages but can be practiced more in-depth in a higher quality way at an older age with better outcomes despite less time having been invested in the process overall. Actually writing composition is on my agenda as the biggest focus for my seventh grader's upcoming homeschool year so as I go through a vigorous plan this year I imagine I'll be blogging more of my thoughts based on what winds up happening as the process unfolds.

Teaching research can be done with elementary and middle school students completely separated from writing composition lesson. As a public school student in the 1970s in those early grades I recall filling out worksheets to answer simple questions about what I found after reserching a topic. I'd like to think that is still being done in school today. I think it is good to teach this to homeschooled kids too.

At the high school level I think it is reasonable and fine to require students to research a topic uknown to them and to write about it. I'd like to think the students have already been taught about plagarism and are not plagarizing. This article shows that not many homeschooled students know much about plagarism (even ones who have not been caught doing it). But now that I have read this article I think every writing class should start with a discussion of plagarism and every class should have consequences for the student if they are caught, and definately that all parents should be made aware that it happened (no matter how uncomfortable it is to handle).

Although it may be true that with the use of Internet research the technology makes it easy to copy and paste I will not blame plagarism on technology. Whether words are plagarized by writing them out longhand or copying and pasting, it is the same thing, the wrongdoing is on the part of the doer not having anything to do with technology. Certainly plagarism has existed for hundreds of years prior to the invention of the computer. I don't feel the focus should shift away from the offense of plagarism on the part of the plagarizer to putting the blame on technology.

I'll not spend much time discussing another important element mentioned in the article: that parents are more interested in thinking highly of their children's abilities than questioning if their exceptional writing is authentic. I'll point you to Richman's words and let you think about if you feel you would be so happy to see great writing from your children that you'd ever question (at least in your own mind) if they may have plagarized any of it.

I am wholeheartedly against plagarism in all forms. As a writer who puts time and effort into writing, carefully choosing words and sometimes seeking publication in print, and as a publisher of book reviews in print and on websites, I see plagarizing of my developed ideas or words as theft plain and simple. I've been the victim of plagarism. In one case a book selling website steals Amazon customer reviews (including at least one of mine) giving credit to Amazon as the source but not to the writer themself. In a discussion with the website owner, it became clear that they didn't feel they were plagarizing or stealing as the profits from the sale of books based on their customers reading stolen book reviews were being given to charity. Oddly enough, the website is run in the name of being a Catholic-related charity, so the religious nature of the site didn't impact the site's owners to use good ethics and to follow U.S. law regarding copyright infringement. Good intentions with profits made does not make the action of plagarism ethical. Additionally plagarizing copyrighted material is copyright infringement which is illegal. (This is a good example of moral relativism at work.)

Plagarism is an important topic that all homeschooled parents should educate themselves about and think about then teach their children about.

I feel that this excellent article on the Pennsylvania Homeschoolers site by Susan Richman: Homeschool Kids and Plagarism should be mandatory reading for all homeschooling parents.

I'm curious to hear what you think about this topic.


christinethecurious said...

My cousin teaches Spanish in a parochial school: her students occasionally attempt to turn in typed homework from a translation web site as their own.

Last Fall I taught a research methods class for our co-op. I asked the kids to read Anthony Weston's a Rulebook for Arguments, a concise logic book. A lot of it covers avoiding plagarism.

I was greatly influenced by Susan Wise Bauer's newsletter articles on writing research papers. She actually suggests waiting until the students have finished studying grammar to do research writing. I had already signed up to develop the writing class, and all of my students were younger than the classical development recommendations. I compromised by having the kids make lap books or trifold boards, or give speeches if they wanted - four of them did write papers. All of them had to make bibliographies.

Part of the problem is the note taking process, which is designed to limit accidental plagarism, but is seldom used. Many kids have trouble paraphrasing ideas or summarizing them in the first place. I teach Jr High Sunday School, and it's as if a switch goes off in their brains at the end of 8th grade, and suddenly, they can summarize Bible stories briefly, whereas in 7th grade, they repeat it almost word for word.

Susan Richman's article is good, thanks for pointing it out!

-Christine in Massachusetts

christinemm said...

Hi Christine,
Have you looked into IEW - Institute for Excellence in Writing?

They use notetaking in a systematic way which is taught, to take notes from a source then to use one's notes to write one's own sentences.

I do believe in this system but have failed to use the curriculum on a consistent basis. It is not a 'creative writing' program.

If you check YouTube or the official website I believe there are some lectures that explain the program.

This upcoming year's big priority for my older son is writing composition. I will use IEW that I already own and am considering adding Bravewriter too. I have a blog post in draft about Bravewriter which will be posted in the next 24 hours hopefully.

While dealing with my reluctant writer older child this year I will also teach the content to my 4th grader and if things go as they usually do with that fast-learner precocious kid it will all be a breeze for him.

Aimee said...

This is very interesting. I didn't realize that homeschoolers might not be learning about plagarism. I have an degree in English so I was obviously taught not to do it. I have taught my son about it from the beginning. He needs to start writing more papers though so I will keep this in mind when I'm teaching him to write the more complex ones.

Sebastian said...

Interesting post. I won't blame the ease of technology on plagerism, since I knew two people in college who were kicked out for plagerizing a paper that they had to retype in order to present it as their own work.

But I do wonder if the viral nature of our current media blurs the edges of what is original. So often, emails forward something or youtube shows something that has been forwarded over and over, often losing the reference to the author or creator in the process.

I wonder if some students approach their writing in the same way that they might put together an ironic video, patching together bits of connecting phrases with splices from their favorite movie.

One Thousand Hills said...

I'm glad you posted this. I've been reading a book on plagiarism. I wrote a post on my blog in response to yours.

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