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Plagiarism Episode

The Plagiarism Episode
28 February 2003

“Okonkwo ruled his household with a heavy hand.” 
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe

From Sera:

I spent the week battling plagiarism. My new project, in addition to promoting desserts in Namibia, is to try and teach these kids the perils of plagiarism.


 Sunday. When marking biographical essays, I discover 2 of my 11th graders have copied biographies right out of the English book! When I bring the issue before the English dept. Head, whom I respect very much, he didn’t even know the word ‘plagiarism’ and when I explained it to him, he didn’t see it as a very big problem, saying, “Well, maybe you can just give them a warning or something.”

 A warning. Hmm. I can work with that.


 Monday. I have a little writing prompt awaiting my students: “Is copying a problem at Ekulo SSS? Why do people do it? What can learners do to help solve the problem? What can teachers do to help solve the problem? Write an essay answering these four questions. You have 20 minutes. Go.” The kids were in shock. They have never seen me so serious.

 After the essays are all collected, I erase the writing prompt and put the following words on the board: Acclaimed, Dutch, 19th Century, Illustrious, Testament, Exhibition, Commissioned.

 “Uugwanga Sam, stand up!” I say in a voice as serious as death. Looking guilty, he stands.

 “Sam, what does the word ‘acclaimed’ mean?”

 No reply. The class is confused.

 “Dutch. What country is a Dutch person from?”

No reply.

 “What years are in the 19th century?”

 “A long time ago?” he attempts.

 “No! Illustrious?”

 No reply. The class is getting nervous. What’s wrong with Ms. Arcaro?

 “Testament. What is a testament?”

 No reply.

 “Exhibition? Commissioned? Do you know what these words mean?”

 “No, Miss,” he is defeated.

 I am relentless. “Why not? I took them right from your essay!” I hold up his paper for dramatic effect. “If you wrote the words, why don’t you know what they mean? Or maybe…Class, please turn to page 144 in your English book. Follow along in your book, as I read from Sam’s paper.” They eagerly turn to page 144. The mystery is to be unraveled! As I read, they teeter nervously as they discover that Sam’s essay and the biography in the book are exactly the same, save the name of the person, which has been changed from Vincent Van Gogh to Toivo Van Nangolo. When I finish reading, I look up, “Class, did you follow along?”

 “Yes Miss.”

 “I just want to make sure—so you followed along in the book, as I read from Sam’s essay?”

 “Yes Miss!” Boy has Ms Arcaro lost it.

 “Just checking. Sam, sit down. Nuumbala Hesekiel, stand up!”

 He stands up, in visible agony. The class is now fully engrossed. Where will the madness end?

 “Hesekiel, who did you write your biographical essay about?” 

He looks at the floor, the ceiling, out the window, on the wall behind him—only to discover that the name is not written anywhere! He gives no answer. This is even better than I hoped—he can’t even remember!

 I read from his paper, “’Biographical of John Otto’—but I think you were a little confused, because his biography sounds a lot like that of Ulenga Benjamin Ulenga. Class, turn to page 53 and try to follow along as I read from Hesekiel’s essay!” They gleefully turn to page 53. I’ve never seen them this attentive. The class is silent as I read. When I finish, I repeat the inquiry, “Did you follow along in your book while I read from Hesekiel’s essay?”

 In unison, “Yes Miss!”

 “Hesekiel, sit down. Now, turn to the front page of your book and follow along while I read, ‘All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission. No paragraph of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted save with written permission. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.’” They all understand the words ‘criminal prosecution.’ This is even better than they thought! The two boys have shrunk so low in their seats, I can’t see them anymore. Easy enough to fix.

 “Sam, stand up! Did you get written permission before copying this biography?”

 Humbly now, “No Miss.”

 “Sit down. Hesekiel, stand up! Did you get written permission before copying? Let me see your letter!” He looks around hopelessly, but no letter materializes out of thin air to save him. “Sit down.”


I remember in my education classes, we discussed the problems of plagiarism, and were given a case scenario about how we would deal with a student we caught plagiarizing. I wrote something very nice and professional, like, “I would take the student aside privately and discuss the issue…” So why did I handle this situation the way I did? Because I wanted to make an example out of these two, I wanted the gossip to be all over the school that if you plagiarize in Ms Arcaro’s class, she will flip out and she will publicly humiliate you. I figure if I can scare people away from plagiarizing now, at the beginning of the year, I will have fewer problems for the next two years. Time will tell.


 Tuesday. The word of the day is ‘plagiarize.’ I write the definition on the board. We discuss it. I make sure everyone understands the meaning. I make them copy it down, along with the following oath: “I understand what plagiarism is and I understand that it is illegal, dishonest, and a form of cheating. I will not plagiarize. I will only use my own words, thoughts, and ideas when I write.” I make them sign it and give it to me, explaining that I now have a record that they have been taught about plagiarism, so there are no more excuses. Then I make them all stand up, raise their right hands, and say the oath, swearing on the Heinemann International Student Dictionary.

 To the two boys whom I caught plagiarizing, I give the punishment of writing me a two page letter of apology as well as writing the definition of plagiarism, the oath, and the copyright 50 times each—just to help them remember.


 Wednesday. Sam gives me his punishment assignment, I look it over, everything is fine. Hesekiel gives me his. He wrote a letter of apology, then the definition of plagiarism 50 times, so far so good…but what’s this? There is the word, the single word, ‘oath’ 50 times! Ah, so he’s got a sense of sarcasm. Then, for the copyright statement, it mysteriously goes from being 6 lines long to 4 lines…he has omitted a sentence in the middle, hoping I wouldn’t notice! My dad didn’t call me “eagle eyes” as a child for nothing! Then, for the icing on the cake, in his numbering scheme he has gone from #22 to #49 then #50. Is it possible he has made it to grade 11 without knowing how to count?

 “Hesekiel, stand up!”

 He stands, as one facing his executioner.

 “Hesekiel, count to 50 for me.”

 “1, 2, 3,…, 21, 22, 23, 2—“

 “What’s that? What number comes after 22?”

 Mumble, mumble.

 “What? I can’t hear you. What number comes after 22?”

 “23 Miss.”

 “Are you sure? Are you sure it’s 23, not 49?”

 “Yes Miss.”

 “But here,” I read from his paper, “you go …20, 21, 22, 49, 50.”

 “It was a mistake Miss!” he is pleading for his life.

 I am merciless. He is convicted. I sentence him, “Sit down!”


 Thursday. I commission one of my learners to design an anti-plagiarism poster.


 Friday. Freddy brings me a drawing of an angry personification of a book, wearing boxing gloves, saying, “Don’t steal my words, use your own words! Or go to jail.”


 Ah. Another week survived. Only 96 more to go!

 Take care, stay warm, and don’t plagiarize!

Love, Sera the Merciless

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