Unaware vs Careless vs Devious: Teaching Plagiarism

I coached and taught debate for almost ten years and, in the process, became a bit of a news junkie. So naturally, the political conventions were on 24/7 at my house this summer. And, naturally, like every other English teacher in the world who was tuned into politics this summer, I followed the Melania Trump plagiarism story pretty closely.  Finally, many of us thought, a perfect example of how “paraphrasing” can go so very wrong.

However, as the news coverage dragged on, I started to wonder if the general reaction and ultimate resolution may have sent a confusing message to our students. At my school–and most academic institutions–plagiarism equals a zero. Boom. Hammer dropped. But our students watching this summer learned that in the “real world”, there isn’t always a hammer. Instead, the campaign explained they were simply “common words” and “no harm was meant.”  Certainly, it was an embarrassment for the campaign, but the dire consequences of plagiarism we always warn our students about didn’t really transpire. Nobody got fired, nobody was kicked out of anything…it just kinda went away.

So how do we still use this as a teachable moment?  It’s a great example of plagiarism–it’s the ultimate “un-mentor” text– and I really want to use it. But in this contentious election season, I have no desire to turn this into a political debate with my students. I am very committed to keeping my politics out of my classroom, and I don’t want to turn this into a perceived Trump attack.

Here’s how I plan to make addressing plagiarism one of the first things I do this year:

1. Discuss: Unaware vs. Careless vs. Devious

The first discussion we must have with our students is about intent. All of Mrs. Trump’s defenders argued that she was either unaware that she was plagiarizing or–at the very worst–just did it on accident and, therefore, shouldn’t be held accountable. I think there is some merit to this argument IF the plagiarizer has never been taught the rules of proper citation.

At my school, every ninth grade student learns all about citation in Ninth Grade English. It doesn’t always stick, so I plan to review with my students and share this poster with them. 


If you are aware of the rules and still plagiarizing, you’re either being careless or devious. Carelessness we can address with more explicit teaching and careful, consistent practice. The only ones left, then, are the students truly trying to cheat.  Once determining intent is off the table, plagiarism becomes a much simpler discussion.

 2. Practice: Quoting vs. Paraphrasing–but still always citing!

The writing we ask our students to do today is different than the types of writing I was asked to do in high school. For me, there was one type of writing that required citation–the research paper. We made our note cards, we used the MLA handbook, and then we went on our merry way.  Today’s writing is different. So many things require citation where a Works Cited page would not be appropriate. How do you properly attribute someone else’s ideas in a blog post? This past spring, the tenth graders at my school wrote editorials. We quickly realized it was silly to have the kids do traditional MLA citation and, instead, taught them how to use hyperlinks. And a speech? You definitely can’t use MLA there! Kids need practice attributing sources within the text itself.

This quick practice can begin that work and is something I will do with my students early in the year, but I am realizing this practice  is something we will need to revisit throughout the year as we use research in our argumentative and informational writing. As students write in different contexts, we’ll need to discuss and practice how to cite their sources appropriately.
3. Communicate: English teachers and other teachers and parents and students

The Trump plagiarism debacle demonstrated very clearly to me that many people do not truly understand what plagiarism is.  That’s on us as English teachers, I think.  We have an opportunity to start educating people about how to give credit where credit is due. That education needs to happen on three levels.

First, English departments need to be completely common in both their teaching of the rules for citation and their application of them. If I am going to hold my tenth graders accountable for proper citation, I need to know exactly what they’ve learned about citation in ninth grade. I think sometimes we assume that we’re all teaching the same things, but discussions can reveal big differences.  I know my students learned the difference between a hyperlink and MLA citation; what if the tenth grade teacher down the hall is teaching only MLA?  Our kids deserve clear, aligned expectations and constant practice throughout their writing education.

Second, as English teachers we need to help our colleagues in other departments support high quality writing. The Common Core requires informational and argumentative writing in Social Studies and Science, but sometimes non-English teachers are hesitant to hold students accountable for proper citation. Cut and paste runs rampant at times and teachers are unsure of what students know. A quick run-down of what students know and should be able to do could happen at a staff meeting. I’m hoping my principal will allow our department to share something like this at a meeting early in the year.

Third, parents and students need to be crystal clear on our expectations from the beginning. When I heard political commentators saying things like “but she didn’t really understand” and “her intentions were good” this summer, I felt like I was hearing well-meaning parents. What a frustrating situation to be in as a parent. You thought your kid was working hard–you even read the paper and thought it was great!– and then the hammer dropped because neither of you really understood the importance of citing someone else’s words and ideas. This year I’ll be talking explicitly about plagiarism with parents at our Curriculum Night to make sure everyone is on the same page from day one. It’s been a part of my syllabus for years, but this year I’ll show some examples and explain which skills the students should already have and which ones we’ll be working on this year in class. 

Ultimately, I want to avoid ever having to wonder if a student is unaware or careless or devious. I truly believe the vast majority of my students want to do the right thing. If I am intentional about helping them understand how to properly give credit to others’ words and ideas right from day one, they can do that.


What about you? Are you planning to use Melania Trump’s speech as an “un-mentor” text this year? Share what you’re doing in the comments below or connect with me on Twitter @TeacherHattie.

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