It’s not cheating unless you get caught, right?

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I remember two things about my high school AP U.S. History teacher: his emotional breakdown (and subsequent screaming) in our class a few weeks before the AP exam, and his story on plagiarism.  The latter went something like this:   “When I was in college, my roommate had not read an assigned book.  When it came time to do his essay, he copied passages verbatim from CliffNotes and turned it in.  What he failed to realize was that the author of that particular CliffNotes was his professor.”  *Gasps and giggles filled the room.*   “He not only got kicked out of UC Davis, but out of the entire UC system.”  *Stone-faced silence replaced the previously cheerful mood.*

I have never forgotten that story, and recite it religiously at the beginning of the school year to my students.

Imagine my chagrin, then, when I graded a major writing assignment last week, and realized that seven out of one hundred papers looked eerily similar…two were even identical.

So what gives?

In her New York Times article “Digging Out Roots of Cheating in High School,” Maura J. Casey  writes that a “…national survey of 25,000 high school students from 2001 to 2008 yielded…depressing results: more than 90 percent said they had cheated in one way or another.”  Casey focuses her article on the work of Dr. Jason Stephens of the University of Connecticut, whose “…premise is that honesty and integrity are not only values but habits — habits that can be encouraged in school settings, with positive benefits later in life.”  Interestingly, Casey argues that “…schools themselves are complicit, because they reward high grades more than the process of learning — while too often turning a blind eye to the cheating.”

One solution that many high schools are banking on is the subscription-based website TurnItIn.  Teachers require their students to turn in their essays to this website, and this website checks the students’ work against other writing on the internet.  The hope is that students will not plagiarize for fear of being caught by TurnItIn, or that if they still attempt to plagiarize, they will be caught.

However, in Audrey Watters’s blog post “How to Combat Plagiarism” on the educational website Edutopia, Watters cites the work of Professor David Harrington of Kenyon College, in which he found that “if nothing else… may only be gauging a small portion of students’ online activities.  After all the service seems to track only a portion of the resources from which a student might opt to lift passages.  If content is behind a paywall, Harrington contends — such as in the case of The New York Times or Google Books — then’s search might not uncover it.”  Additionally, TurnItIn has come under attack by students who claim that their intellectual property is being violated, and feel as if there is an automatic assumption of culpability.

If TurnItIn is not the panacea that we had all hoped for, then what is the solution to student cheating?

Step One must include giving students (and parents!) a clear definition of what plagiarism is.  Penn State’s website on “Defining Plagiarism and Academic Integrity” has a clear and concise list of what constitutes plagiarism.  The Council of Program Writing Administrators has a lengthier, more thorough document on “Defining and Avoiding Plagiarism.”

Step Two is to practice this skill with our students — isn’t that, after all, how we teach them any skill?  One of my all-time favorite sources, The Purdue Online Writing Lab (aka The OWL at Purdue) has a practice assignment that demonstrates how and when to use citations.

Step Three revisits Dr. Stephens’s theory that teaching academic integrity will curtail plagiarism.  The University of Missouri’s webpage on academic integrity includes fifty (!) activities to teach students about this topic.  Even though these activities were written for university students, they can be easily applied to the high school level.  As many of these activities are discussions, they are easy to incorporate into any curriculum.

While these three steps will certainly not stop plagiarism forevermore (some students, after all, consciously cheat), they should help.  Out of the seven papers that were plagiarized two weeks ago in my class, at least two of those papers would probably have not been issues if I had followed the steps outlined above.

(Interestingly, more articles are written about college cheating than high school cheating.  See the links below for more information.)

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Overcoming procrastination

Year after year, most teachers’ Winter Breaks go something like this:

  1. Ruminate on all of the activities we should be engaged in: grading papers, planning out the second semester, responding to work e-mail, etc.
  2. Do none of the aforementioned things.
  3. Spend most of the break feeling guilty about not doing these things.
  4. Begin chipping away at these tasks the Sunday before we go back to work.
  5. Question why we had not just gotten these tasks out of the way the first weekend of break.
  6. Vow never to go through this vicious cycle again.

The six steps above describe the well-known, completely human (albeit completely frustrating) phenomenon of PROCRASTINATION.


According to the CBS News article “The Staggering Cost of Procrastination,” procrastination is not just an issue for individuals–it’s an issue for the country as a whole.  The article cites a study conducted by the research firm Basex, which claims that the U.S. is losing $650 billion a year in “lost productivity and innovation” because of “answering e-mail, composing IMs, and trolling Twitter.”  I would add that time spent on Facebook, composing text messages, and even merely having the television or radio on while trying to get work done are major culprits in zapping one’s time.

Then why do we procrastinate?  After all, most of us logically know what the cycle looks like, feels like, and how it will inevitably end (hint: not well).’s “Stop Procrastination–Now!” article outlines the four major reasons why we procrastinate:

  1. Self-Doubt This is the same as perfectionism; one can become so worked up over how much work needs to get done on a particular task to make it just right, that s/he inevitably feels overwhelmed, and does not begin the task at all.
  2. Discomfort Dodging One who exhibits this behavior does not feel like beginning a task because s/he knows (or thinks) that it will be unpleasant. Ironically, the guilt from not diving in to the task is probably just as uncomfortable as the discomfort s/he is avoiding.
  3. Guilt-Driven One may feel guilty for not doing a task, but will continue to put it off in an attempt to deny that s/he is feeling guilty at all.
  4. Habitual In this case, procrastination has become a routine, and someone who is a habitual procrastinator will usually attribute his/her procrastination to his/her personality (and possibly even brag about it as a character trait).


The Spanish say that “tomorrow is often the busiest day of the week,” so, for the sake of enjoying a happier, healthier tomorrow (and rest of your vacation), follow these simple tips on how to get started from (suitably) The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Overcoming Procrastination:

10 Things to Do When You Can’t Get Started

  1. Think of all the bad things that might happen if you don’t do the task or complete it too late.
  2. Remember how unpleasant it was the last time you put off something until the last minute.
  3. Think of a time when you had a similar project that seemed overwhelming or difficult but that turned out to be not such a big deal once you started it.
  4. Tell yourself you’ll work on the task for just 10 minutes.
  5. If #4 doesn’t work, tell yourself to spend 10 minutes merely organizing the task or getting out the supplies for it.
  6. Ask something for advice, instructions, or hand-holding.
  7. Listen for any negative self-talk going on in your head and turn it into positive statements.
  8. Remind yourself why this task is a priority.
  9. Daydream about a reward you’ll give yourself or that you’ll receive from others for completing the task. Or, if it won’t be a distraction, treat yourself to that reward while working on the task.
  10. Don’t panic over your deadline. Focus on do dates, not due dates.”

Tullier, L. Michelle. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Overcoming Procrastination. Indianapolis, IN: Alpha, 1999. Print.


Related websites:

It’s beginning to taste a lot like Christmas

Image via BestPriceNutrition

Today’s coffee of choice was a bit unorthodox for me.  I usually opt for sweet, icy beverages (anything similar to a milkshake usually makes me happy), but California finally got a major dose of cold weather this week, so I chose something new: an SkCDL (or “Skinny Cinnamon Dulce Latte” in layman’s terms).  This was recommended to me by the perkiest, Santa’s-elf-like barista I have ever met…which may explain why I had my first “Fa-La-La-La-La” moment of the year.  Yes, this warm beverage jolted memories of Christmas shopping at Stonestown Galleria with my mom, not to mention sugar plum fairies dancing in my head.  While I’m not one for cinnamon-flavored anything, this drink has just a subtle taste of the aforementioned spice, with a hint of vanilla flavor as well.  And at just around one hundred calories, I can revel in the Christmas spirit without rapidly heading towards Santa’s rotundity.

P.S. If you’ve ever wondered if the barista wrote your order correctly on your cup, you can learn to decipher the Starbucks code at:

Action! It’s summer blockbuster time

I love the feeling of going out to see a movie.  I buy the popcorn, say yes to the butter, and (unfortunately) usually indulge in Reese’s Pieces as well (the old “if I am having a tub of buttered popcorn, the day is shot to hell anyway, so I might as well” mentality).  Here’s a quick roundup of the movies I have seen so far this summer, as well as some movies I am looking forward to seeing in the upcoming months:

The Avengers
Robert Downey, Jr. is my hero (apart from the drugs and prison stints).  The only problem I had with this movie was that he had to share the screen with others (the more witty jokes with impeccable comedic timing, the better in my book).  The Avengers was a phenomenal summer blockbuster, filled with the kind of action sequences that require one to remind oneself to breathe.  This movie took me back to the days of the great summer blockbusters (think Con Air, Face/Off, and Independence Day).  I just hope that the sequel is not as disappointing as Iron Man 2.

The Amazing Spider-Man
I could have sworn I saw this movie a few years ago–oh wait, I did.  It was called Spider-man.  While my husband liked this movie (he felt as if it was a more realistic interpretation of the story), I felt as if this movie dragged considerably, and while the protagonist (played by Andrew Garfield) was likable, I felt that Tobey Maguire was even more so.  The movie was not different enough from the original to warrant the time I spent watching it.  All in all, this movie lacked the pace and glee of the original movie.

Magic Mike
Magic Mike, an artistic tour de force about a magician named Mike who captivates his audiences, will probably be an Oscar contender this year.  Just kidding.  This movie is about Channing Tatum stripping.  I went to this movie with a fellow teacher, and the audience consisted of all women (including a group of nine eager, elderly women who chatted excitedly before and during the movie), and one man.  While I had certain expectations of the movie (the acting would be awful, the plot would be nonexistent, and Channing Tatum would be devilishly handsome), I was wrong on all accounts except for the latter.  The surprisingly gritty plot was better than expected, and so was Tatum.

Theatrical Release Poster

Upcoming movies I can’t wait to see:

The Dark Knight Rises
I got goosebumps just typing the title.  ‘Nuff said.

Total Recall
I never saw the Governator’s rendition, but this looks interesting.

The Bourne Legacy
Hopefully this will be as good as Matt Damon’s Bourne movies, and with Jeremy Renner and Edward Norton as the stars, it has a pretty great chance.

Tosh.0 is probably referring to his IQ

Image via Microsoft

A few weeks ago, comedian Daniel Tosh made a rape joke and was “heckled” by a female audience member–rightfully so–for the inappropriateness of the joke.  Tosh, who also has a show on television (Tosh.0), retorted, “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by, like, five guys right now? Like right now?”

While rape jokes are not new (George Carlin defended them on his Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics CD in the nineties, and even female comedians Sarah Silverman and Wanda Sykes make them), I suppose what made this one more shocking was that it was directed at a specific woman in the audience.

RAINN (the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) reports that someone in the U.S. is sexually assaulted every two minutes, and many would argue that rape is the most heinous of all crimes.  So why would comedians (male and female) feel as if rape jokes could ever be funny?

Since the age when we learn to swear like sailors (middle school?), women and men use phrases such as “stop acting like such a p***y,” “you are such a little b***h,” “son of a b***h,” “you c**t,” and “what a d****e.”  These phrases are all related to females, and are all highly-used phrases that exhibit one’s vehement hatred for or frustration towards another human being.  What is the message that we send to each other?  That when we are feeling anger, it is socially acceptable (in many circles) to use a female-related word to curse at another.  And women do this just as much as, if not more than, men.

The words we use have a profound effect on the way we see ourselves and others.  Even less-offensive phrases such as “stop acting like a girl” must have a monumental, subconscious effect on both sexes when they hear it.

The ancient Chinese philosopher Laozi said:

Watch your thoughts, they become your words
Watch your words, they become your actions
Watch your actions, they become your habits
Watch your habits, they become your character
Watch your character, it becomes your destiny. 

When our society uses female words to exhibit anger, or rape jokes to make others laugh, the character of our society changes.  So Tosh, let me hit you with an adage that you must have missed in childhood:

If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

Book review: The Red Tent

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The Red Tent by Anita Diamant is one of those rare books that actually enhances the body of literature that society has amassed over the millennia.

The Red Tent is a fictional account of Dinah, a woman mentioned only briefly in Genesis.  The story begins with Jacob, Dinah’s father, and his marriages to two sisters, Leah and Rachel, who each take their other two sisters, Bilhah and Zilpah, as slaves.  Thus, Dinah is born into a family with four mothers, and the story centers on these women’s everyday lives, which include dealing with their husband, Jacob; bearing and tending to their children; and dealing with the jealousy, insecurity, and love that each experiences for her sisters and husband.

Later, the novel merges with Dinah’s Biblical account, in which she is “defiled” by a prince who later asks for her hand in marriage. (The Bible does not make it clear whether or not this “defilement” was consensual.)  Jacob’s sons, having learned of their sister’s defilement, avenge this wrongdoing by killing the prince and massacring everyone in his palace.

Diamant’s text moves the reader from Haran (an ancient Mesopotamian city), to Canaan, and then to Egypt.  While a lesser writer would have merely mentioned these moves, Diamant transports and then envelopes the reader in distinctly different cultures and customs throughout the narrative, while giving the reader insight into the effects that these changes have on the protagonist.

This novel’s depictions of womanhood and motherhood have resonated with me months after reading it. This phenomenal work of art is my book club’s favorite novel to date, and has sent us on a quest for more well-written historical fiction.  Any suggestions would be welcome!

“It would be a great horror to work for your cooperation” and other reasons why I am looking forward to summer vacation

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The sun is out, my skin color has gone from alabaster to a more earthly shade of light beige, and I can see the light at the end of the tunnel…school is almost out!  With the end of the school year fast approaching, I holed myself up in my house this weekend for one last round of gradeapalooza, in which I finished grading my sophomores’ cover letters.  While I was completely wowed by most of the cover letters, and deeply proud of my students’ writing progress and professionalism, there were some laugh-out-loud hilarious typos, unfortunate grammatical mistakes, and flat-out pompous assertions.  The following flubs need no further introduction:

“Again I would just like to say thank you for taking the time to read my letter, and I am looking forward to meeting with you one on one in person.  You can contact me through my email at [completely inappropriate e-mail address omitted] or my mobile phone which it is an almost guarantee I’ll answer…”

“On your website, you state that any and all of your employees must be self-motivated, mature, and extremely reliable.  Most people of my age are lethargic, lazy and not easily moved…”

“I have the opportunity to become a good leadership to the customers and hardworking employee at your established.”

“I believe that my working skills will approved to make your day happy as I am.”

“I experience when I used to shop in Abercrombie, I wasn’t feeling welcome when I try my best to ask an employee for help.  As for now, I can be hands-on and helping hands to the customers who need help and make the store clean and germ-free.”

“I organized the skills I needed for the day before I leave home and off to school ready to be the leader.”

“I never been stress before, I make sure I had enough sleep and eat my healthy breakfast, lunch and dinner.”

“I have also worked to not get bored with people, so I will always have a smile on my face.”

“I am extremely well-known with just about every sport…”

“I definitely think I am honest as well, so I can guarantee you, that lying, stealing, or anything in that nature won’t be a problem with me!”

“Please put your hands in trust on me working as a waitress in your restaurant.”

“The qualifications and duties required to be a train operator are no big deal.”

“I also know whether something bad or good is afoot…”

“My communication skills are off the charts.”

“I’m exceedingly good at reading; I read when I have spear time and when I don’t.”

“Are you looking for a Cashier with:

  • 0-1 years of hands-on experience in Sales?”

“…as a volunteer at local nursing homes I have dealt with requests of elders which has taught me to make sure their need was fulfilled.  That I have done with no hesitance no matter how heinous the request.”

“I would relish the opportunity to show to you as well as the other employees just what it means to be a hard worker.”

“I welcome the chance to become part of the wind beneath your company’s wings and help lift it to new heights.”

“Pleas accept my enthusiastic application to work as a stuff member at [name omitted].  I would be horned to be apart of your staff at your establishment.

“There for I under stand how it would be a great horror to work for your cooperation.”

“The Gift of the Magi”

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Henry David Thoreau said that “it is preoccupation with possessions, more than anything else, that prevents us from living freely and nobly.”  How ironic, then, that in the Season of Consumerism, my favorite Christmas short story is one that emphasizes the importance of personal sacrifice, and not material possessions, as Christmas’s most important theme.

In “The Gift of the Magi” ‘s first line, the reader discovers a conflict: it’s just before Christmas, and Della has “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all” (Henry 1)…and she still has not bought her husband a Christmas present.  The two are poor, and, save for a few prized possessions, have no luxuries in their lives.  “The Gift of the Magi” is about the spirit of giving and sacrifice–what Della sacrifices to give her husband, Jim, for Christmas, and surprisingly, what he sacrifices for Della as well.

I first read O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” in eighth grade, and have taught it previously to ninth graders, as it can be found in most ninth grade literature textbooks.  This story can easily be taught the last day before winter break (when students’ blood sugar levels would make any Keebler elf envious), and is great for teaching plot, characterization, and especially irony.

FYI…The title derives itself from the Biblical magi, who were the three astrologers from the east who noticed a star when Jesus was born, and followed it until they reached Him.  They presented Him with gifts, three of which are specified in the Bible: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matthew 2.1-11 New World Translation).  There are many theories as to what the three gifts may have symbolized, as well as whether or not the magi were actually harmful to Jesus (they paid obeisance to Him, but also inadvertently tipped off Herod that He was alive).  These details are not, however, important to one’s understanding of O. Henry’s short story.

Related websites:

Christmas quotations

Every day, I post a Quote of the Day (excuse the redundancy) on my whiteboard.  Here are some quotes that get my students into the Christmas spirit:

“Christmas gift suggestions: to your enemy, forgiveness. To an opponent, tolerance. To a friend, your heart. To a customer, service. To all, charity. To every child, a good example. To yourself, respect.” -Oren Arnold

“There are three stages of a man’s life: He believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, he is Santa Claus.” -Anonymous

“Christmas is the season for kindling the fire of hospitality in the hall, the genial flame of charity in the heart.” – Washington Irving

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore. Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.” – Dr. Seuss

“Christmas is not a time nor a season, but a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” -Calvin Coolidge

“Do give books – religious or otherwise – for Christmas. They’re never fattening, seldom sinful, and permanently personal.” -Lenore Hershey

“Happy, happy Christmas, that can win us back to the delusions of our childhood days, recall to the old man the pleasures of his youth, and transport the traveler back to his own fireside and quiet home!” -Charles Dickens

“Once again, we come to the Holiday Season, a deeply religious time that each of us observes, in his own way, by going to the mall of his choice.”  -Anonymous

Mo homework, mo problems?

Some children, like the one featured in the video below, take homework very seriously, and will go to great lengths to have their homework questions answered:

Still, for most students, homework is a less-than-desirable, although necessary, evil. How much homework is allowable has been up for great debate over the last few years at my high school, with the outcome being a newly-created Homework Committee.  Now, the question that seems to be on everyone’s mind is:  How much homework is actually beneficial to students?

In the CBS News report “The Case Against Homework,” eleven-year-old Ben Berrafato eloquently questions the need for this age-old practice (see video below).  Berrafato researched and wrote an essay on the topic of homework for his fifth grade class, and his essay made it to the Op-Ed section of the New York Daily News.  He has also been featured in person in various news interviews on national television.

In the interview, Berrafato knowledgeably shares his findings on the effectiveness of homework (many of which come from Time Magazine‘s “The Myth About Homework”).  According to the research, homework at the elementary level garners nearly no benefit to students, and homework above one hour in middle school and two hours in high school actually decreases students’ standardized test scores.  The article also notes that countries who have historically ranked higher than the U.S. in education actually give less homework, and countries that rank lower in education give comparatively more homework.

Can it be argued, then, that “down time” is just as important as, for lack of a better phrase, “brain time?”  The answer, quite possibly, is yes. In “An Idle Brain May Be Ripe for Learning,” Anita Hamilton reports on NYU cognitive neuroscientist Lila Davachi’s study on the brain at rest, in which she found “…that the brain at rest, even while remaining awake, is conducting meaningful activity. ‘Your brain is doing work for you even when you’re resting,’ says Davachi, who just published a study in Neuron showing that certain kinds of brain activity actually increase during waking rest and are correlated with better memory consolidation. ‘Taking a rest may actually contribute to your success at work or school,’ she adds.”

And with that, I’m off to take a nap.

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