Sunday, March 3, 2019

Cheaters Learn Too

Thanks to the team  for creating 
community and valuing voice. Join us at Two Writing Teachers
Slide by the Slice of Life buffet for seconds or link up to serve your own slice of life.

I don't know a teacher who isn't embarrassed by something they "used to do" in the classroom. I cringe at some of my "used to" practices-- and believe me there are many. I used to have students log the time they spent reading independently. I used to use the "awk" abbreviation when commenting on student writing (not to mention the whole host of additional abbreviations). Oh, earlier teacher me was often on the steep slope of the learning curve. I still am because I believe our practice continuously changes.

Don't you?

Still, one "used to" practice bubbled up today when I talked to a fellow teacher about collecting essays and discovering a student had plagiarized. 

I am embarrassed by how I used to punish students who were dishonest about their academic work.

Though I  stopped punishing learners with a grade of zero long ago (I've written about that before here and here.), I did use a zero as punishment for cheating or plagiarism. I must admit, sometimes, I cringe when I hear my own voice in memories of that time. I used to give kids who cheated zeroes: no negotiation, no resubmission, no explanation.  I was a black and white thinker: you cheat, you fail.

Well, what does that teach a child? Really.

Instead of taking a caring approach, I punished.  I applied the ultimate consequence in order to affect the average (also a "used to" practice, averaging) in the worst possible way.

I held onto to that last practice for a long time. Yes, I too, was once a rim waver as Rick Wormeli says. From Wormeli and others, I realized that punishing a learner with a grade did nothing to teach the her. So, I shifted. Instead of wielding the zero, I had to confront the behavior or the academic performance in a way that keeps kids connected to school and learning, in a  way that communicates my genuine care for students and their learning.

Now, when I discover plagiarism, I meet with the student.  Before I even meet with him though I ask myself: did the student misunderstand? Are there gaps in the students' research writing knowledge?  When we meet, we have a conversation about what the writer did. Then we invite the writer's parent(s) into the conversation. The student calls the parent and talks about the plagiarism or cheating and then I speak to the parent about next steps in terms of learning and second chances. If this is a pattern of behavior (ie: it's happened more than once in my class or in others), the student meets with an academic dean or administrator for another conversation about consequences.

Reteaching or additional learning and practice are the next steps. I find some time during the school day or after school and the student comes in for a short mini-lesson. Then they have time to write and re-do while also having me for support at the start. If it's an extended assignment or an assignment of length, the writer won't finish the revision in a "supervised" sort of way; the writer will finish at home and resubmit.

It's not my job to punish kids. My job is to support and teach learners. Learners fail. That's one step toward learning that I now recognize. Failure or initial learning as some like to say is key to having a growth mindset.


  1. As I read this reflective post, I thought of all the cringe-worthy moments in my own career. What is about reflecting on past mistakes as teachers that make the shame gremlins rear their ugly heads? I appreciate your introspection and willingness to shift, evolve, and change. Wielding grades as weapons seems incredibly ineffective, yet when we feel powerless we reach for anything we think might work. Thanks for writing this thoughtful piece.

  2. I find that with research can be a learner gap and a survival strategy. I think we constantly are fighting a punitive response to kids as our first response. Good thinking! Good strategies.

  3. I’m w/ you, Lee. How we handle cheating and plagiarism reflects how it was handled in our school days. I’ve dealt w/ several cases in my dual credit speech class this year. I’m supposed to give the student a failing grade. I haven’t. I’ve conferred and offered a way forward via a redo. Students are grateful and that’s reglected in their subsequent work. They’ve been honest, too, about how things went sideways. I do assess a small grade reduction on the work, but the student can overcome that slight deficit. I take this approach as a way to reinforce the university policies I must live with.