A+ Advice for Parents

Student Doesn't Understand Why Plagiarism Is Cheating

Q: My 7th-grade daughter got a zero on a report because her teacher says almost all of it was "stolen from the Internet." My daughter says everyone does it and doesn't see why it's cheating. Don't schools teach students research skills? She'll need to know that for college.

A: Never mind college; she needs to learn now about plagiarism. Teens are so used to sharing information online that many don't understand that they can't just grab a photo, poem or paragraph, and then weave it into an assignment and pass the work off as their own.

Yes, schools do teach proper research and writing practices. Educators from the elementary grades through high school incorporate research and attribution skills into media literacy lessons and specific classes such as social studies and language arts.

Many schools have crafted explicit policies to combat plagiarism. For example, the policy at White Station Middle School in Memphis, Tenn., provides "students with guidelines to enable academic judgment, develop integrity, and preserve honor." It spells out how to give proper credit to another's work and outlines consequences for failing to do so. (Go to www.scsk12.org/schools/whitestation.ms/site/index.shtml and click on the "WSMS Plagiarism Policy" link.)

Teaching students how to do research without plagiarizing is part of the Common Core State Standards. The Grade 8 English Language Arts Standards state that students will learn to "gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation."

Award-winning California middle-school teacher Heather Wolpert-Gawron is aware of the challenge. "How do we as educators help students respect other people's work and not abuse it in this era of accessible information?" she writes in a blog post at edutopia.org. "The answer is, of course, to teach ethical academic behavior in a targeted way, to model it yourself and to hold students accountable."

She has created a terrific online scavenger hunt that teaches online ethics. The "hunt" leads students to a definition of ethics, a quiz to test "netiquette savvy," and Internet explorations through links to Creation Commons, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Library and the Library of Congress.

The final step in the hunt "is a contract of sorts," writes Wolpert-Gawron, where students type their names, stating that they "understand that every image and piece of music must be cited on every project from here on in throughout this school year."

Find Wolpert-Gawron's scavenger hunt on her blog post, "Common Core in Action: Teaching Online Ethics," at edutopia.org.

It's always been a parent's job to teach kids that appropriating the work of others is cheating. It's just a little harder in today's online world.

To make it easier, Wolpert-Gawron has written a fun teacher resource, "Internet Literacy, Grades 6-8" (Teacher Created Resources, 2010). It shows teens how to read through layers of links and use reliable research methods; it also covers "netiquette," online ethics, safety, privacy and laws. There are also tips for networking, collaborating and contributing online.

You might be surprised how much you both can learn from this little volume!

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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