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.)

Related Websites:


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

Image via Microsoft

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:

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.

Ho, ho, whole lotta present ideas

Image via Microsoft

We are officially in the Season of Giving (or, as my husband likes to call it, when our pockets hemorrhage money).  To that end, here’s a list of ten great holiday gift ideas for the loved ones in your life who happen to be teachers!

  1. Massage gift certificate…I’m not the only teacher in town whose shoulders crack when I lie down in bed, thoroughly depleted of energy.  Nothing says “happy holidays” more than the gift of relaxation.
  2. Scented candles…Aromatherapy soothes and relaxes the mind; hopefully it also drives away the memory of what your loved one’s hand touched while moving desks at 7:00 A.M. in the morning.
  3. Gym membership…According to the ancient Greek philosopher Thales, “νοῦς ὑγιὴς ἐν σώματι ὑγιεῖ,” or “a healthy body can sustain a healthy mind.”  And although Thales never placed in the Olympics, I tend to believe him: exercise clears the mind and boosts energy levels, while curtailing the ubiquitous, less-than-desirable, frumpy teacher look.  (You know what I’m talking about.)
  4. Coffee gift card…While we are on the subject of boosting energy levels, the dirty little secret of the teaching profession is that we are all addicted.  To caffeine, that is.  So why not fuel the addiction?
  5. Amazon or Barnes and Noble gift card…I have never met a teacher who did not love a great book.  Give the gift of education to an educator!
  6. Magazine subscription…Many educational journals offer inspirational ideas for teachers, but if you wish to steer clear of work-related gifts, fun, carefree magazines abound.  My favorite?  Mental Floss, which provides hysterical trivia that is true and unbelievable, all at the same time.
  7. Restaurant gift card…Teachers love to kick off their weekends at local happy hours.  There, they can dish about their grammatical pet peeves to their hearts’ contents (“what is so hard about using the word whose correctly?”) in the company of adults, and only adults, before they make their ways back home to play Words with Friends against their coworkers, from the comforts of their couches.
  8. Hot chocolate gift set…A steaming cup of Ghirardelli hot chocolate almost makes grading bearable, while keeping your favorite teacher toasty during the winter months.
  9. Journal…Journaling is a great way to unwind at the end of the day, and it is also a great opportunity for teachers to do some of their own writing for a change!
  10. Photo books…Taking the time to compile your favorite memories with your loved one over the past year is a creative and heartfelt way to show that you care.  Any teacher would appreciate these beautiful works of art, which have become very affordable lately; check out The Great Photo Book Round-Up Review, which is hands down the best review on the subject.  (Hint: skip to the last page of the review if you just care to read the list of winners.)  My advice: after reading the aforementioned photo book review, choose a photo book company and sign up for e-mails on its website.  You will receive great deals (usually to the tune of 40% of during a particular week, or buy one, get one 50% off) that can’t be beat.

Adding new books to the curriculum…a brainstorming session

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the fact that students need to read current, more relevant material in their English classes.  Then, the stars aligned: when I met with my principal this week, she asked me if there is anything that she can do for me.  I told her that she could help me infuse new titles into the sophomore curriculum.  Then, at our English Department meeting yesterday, the heads of the department mentioned that if we sophomore teachers wanted to discuss new titles, we should brainstorm a list of books to present to them!

While all of this sounds great, there is just one teensy-weensy little problem:

English teachers don’t have time to read for fun!  We spend the school year reading students’ essays, as well as refreshing our memories on the books that we are currently teaching.

I am, thus, in a bit of a quandary: I would love more time to read books that have been recommended to me, but the department needs the list ASAP.

Here are two books that have been recommended to me today:

1.  One of my coworkers suggested What is the What.  Here is the book description, according to

“In a heartrending and astonishing novel, Eggers illuminates the history of the civil war in Sudan through the eyes of Valentino Achak Deng, a refugee now living in the United States. We follow his life as he’s driven from his home as a boy and walks, with thousands of orphans, to Ethiopia, where he finds safety — for a time. Valentino’s travels, truly Biblical in scope, bring him in contact with government soldiers, janjaweed-like militias, liberation rebels, hyenas and lions, disease and starvation — and a string of unexpected romances. Ultimately, Valentino finds safety in Kenya and, just after the millennium, is finally resettled in the United States, from where this novel is narrated. In this book, written with expansive humanity and surprising humor, we come to understand the nature of the conflicts in Sudan, the refugee experience in America, the dreams of the Dinka people, and the challenge one indomitable man faces in a world collapsing around him.”

While I have not read this book, it sounds fascinating, and I can “sell” this book to my department and to my principal for a variety of reasons.  It is…

  1. contemporary.
  2. a work of nonfiction (which HUGE because of schools’ increasing push to have our students ready for the EAP).
  3. about real-world issues that continue to exist.
  4. about an immigrant to the United States (which is highly relevant to our students’ backgrounds).
  5. written by a local, award-winning author.

2.  One of my long-time friends (and former colleagues) mentioned The Hunger Games to me today; her school is adding this book to their sophomore curriculum.  Here is’s book description:

“In the ruins of a place once known as North America lies the nation of Panem, a shining Capitol surrounded by twelve outlying districts. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, “The Hunger Games,” a fight to the death on live TV. Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who lives alone with her mother and younger sister, regards it as a death sentence when she is forced to represent her district in the Games. The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed.”

While I know that this novel has become a huge phenomenon, and a movie will come out soon, I wonder if it would be too easy for the students, because (I believe) it was written for teenagers.  Then again, if the point is to teach students skills, and not plots, wouldn’t an easier book, make the teaching of these skills easier?

I have been attempting to use the Lexile Framework for Reading to come up with books, but this has not helped greatly, so I am sending this plea out to all of you…

Any suggestions???

Related Websites

I rule!

Image via Rekord

DOL stands for Daily Oral Language (published by Great Source), and all English teachers at my school are asked/forced/begged to teach grammar in the following way:

Every day, students receive two highly dysfunctional sentences which they must correct.  Then we pray that they have learned grammar.  These sentences include the politically incorrect darnel dont have no reason too question them instructions but he does want a explanation for this here exam and although we had 25 inches of snow last Winter the bushes appear to be alright pedro noted.

Even with the aforementioned insipid grammar material in hand, one student asked a very interesting question today, after we had finished correcting the day’s sentences:

Why do we capitalize I?

Why, indeed?  After all, it is the only pronoun that we capitalize.  When did this tradition begin?  What are the social and political implications?  Inspired by this question, which I have never entertained, I Googled the matter, which led me to the highly interesting (and pretty darn funny) New York Times article, “On Language – Me, Myself, and I.”  (On a side note, the fact that the word Google has become a verb is another interesting grammatical factoid.)

This article first gives an overview of how different languages have handled capitalization in general, and then, more specifically, whether or not they capitalize I.  Then, the author, Caroline Winter, elucidates the history of the pronoun I in the English language, and gives an example of a culture (Rastafarian) which has changed this ubiquitous pronoun for the more spiritual “I and I.”  Finally, Winter dives into the political implications of the use of this pronoun in speeches.

This is a fantastic article that is pertinent to our students today while remaining entertaining. It can be used to discuss the importance of grammar in today’s world, as well as what changes in grammar represent or imply.  How’s that for daily oral language?

Silent reading is the gift that keeps on giving

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Sunlight fills the room.  Soft, soothing music fills the air.  I look up, and thirty-three teenagers, each one holding a different book in front of himself/herself, are reading, spellbound. I pinch myself as I thank the universe for the advent of silent reading.

It wasn’t always like this.  My first two years of teaching, I had students keep a log of the books and page numbers that they read.  I urged students to bring books from home, and I attempted to initiate conversations about what they were reading after each silent reading period.

The result?  Students kept logs sporadically because they became bored with their originally-selected books, and could only muster up the energy to read a few pages a day.  Many forgot to bring books from home, and stared at the ceiling rather than read the textbooks that I plopped on their desks as an alternative.  The forced conversations went nowhere.  And, what’s worse, students tried to sneak text messaging and/or homework time into the time allotted for silent reading.

So how did silent reading become the Godsend it currently is?

  • I do not require any assignment with silent reading.  Students need to learn that reading is FUN, and when an assignment (even something as simple as a book log, reflection, or book report) is given, reading becomes a (negative) chore that students will learn to resent, not love.
  • I play music.  When silent reading is too silent, students become fidgety and uncomfortable.  Remember, this is the overstimulated generation.  Therefore, I have created a YouTube playlist with relaxing piano music for the students to listen to.  (This is better than my two previous sources – and Pandora, which both now contain commercials.)
  • I make students clear their desks.  All writing utensils, binders, notebooks, papers, purses, backpacks, etc. should be on the floor, away from students’ desks and laps (a backpack on someone’s lap means that s/he is texting behind it–why else would any self-respecting human being jam a backpack between himself/herself and a desk for one hour?).
  • I model this skill.  At the beginning of the year, I read along with my students for the fifteen-minute increments of time.  As the year progresses, I wean away from reading along with students in order to catch up with some of my own work (taking attendance, grading an assignment, or updating the class website).  With some groups, you will have to model this skill until the end of the year.  With others, you will be able to wean yourself away from the reading like I did.
  • I provide the books.  Students will not always have books available at home; while I encourage students to bring their own books from home, I provide a large library of books in my classroom.  At my school, teachers donate books that they have finished reading by leaving them on a special shelf in the photocopy room.  Whenever I see a book on the shelf, I snatch it up and add it to my library.  The books I have on my bookshelf are extremely varied: I have books that are at the elementary school level, all the way up to classics.  I include fiction and nonfiction, and have recently procured graphic novels.  Students can select any book they would like without judgment.
  • I set a timer.  There is something about uttering the phrase, “All right students, silent reading begins NOW” as I press the ON button on my timer that makes the students begin reading right away.  If a few students are still chatting, I stop my timer (which has a handy “beep” noise every time I press it), stare at them until they notice me, and say loudly “I am waiting to begin silent reading.  Silent reading will not begin until everyone is reading.”
  • I make funny faces at my students.  On the rare occasion that a student is not actively engaging in silent reading, I catch his/her eye and then I pretend that I am flipping through an imaginary book in front of me.  I mouth words like “wow,” or “hmm” (as I press my index finger into my cheek) as I continue to flip through my imaginary book.  I must look pretty darn silly doing this, because the student always giggles and then returns to reading his/her book.

One of my all-time happiest moments as a teacher is when a mother of one of my students wrote me a thank you card at the end of the year, telling me that her child once had a teacher who had turned him off to reading, and that I had brought the love of reading back to her son.  She thanked me for making her son the avid reader that he once was.

This student is a perfect example of silent reading having the potential to change our students’ perceptions of reading: many students feel as if reading is a tedious activity that is forced upon them; silent reading will convince many students that reading can be a self-directed activity that brings them joy and sparks their interests.

Silent reading also increases students’ vocabularies by exposing them to new words, and if students continue to read more because they enjoy their silent reading time, then their vocabularies will expand exponentially, making silent reading truly the gift that keeps on giving!

“The more you read, the more things you will know.  The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.” –Dr. Seuss

Related websites

The only way to get your students to listen

“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care.”
― Theodore Roosevelt

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