How to suck at cheating

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It appears that the University of North Carolina football program has taken another hit in terms of the team’s academic integrity.  Reports are now surfacing that standout wide receiver Erik Highsmith was caught plagiarizing an eleven-year-old’s writing in a communications class last semester.  Now, you might think that he would get caught, called on it, and change his ways, but he apparently also copied and pasted something from a GRE preparation site in the same class, and got caught again.

A lot of plagiarism is unintentional and not malicious.  I’ve had talks with students over the years – many of them extremely bright – explaining that they can’t simply use another historian’s ideas without citing them, or paraphrase too closely.  On the first offense I try to talk to them about why what they did is academically dishonest, and those students are usually horrified and go back and fix their work.  In isolated incidents, I don’t really have much of a problem with that, especially when they’re still learning about historiography.

I have zero sympathy, however, for students who have been taught since they were in elementary school that copying something word-for-word is wrong and still try to do it.  I can attest to the fact that students will copy and paste just about anything, try to pass it off as their own, and then believe they’ll get away with it.  In my teaching career I’ve seen more than my share of it.  Regardless of the students’ age or academic aptitude, many of them try to pull it off on a regular basis.  And they almost always get caught.  I don’t know why, but students always think they’re the first person to ever copy and paste an entire assignment, and the teacher just won’t care enough to check the material, or will simply think that on this particular task, they pulled off a feat of brilliance.

Kids, let me just knock that assumption out of the park now:  Don’t even bother trying.  We’ve seen it all.

The rote copy-and-paste plagiarism I’ve seen come across my desk over the years would put some of the best “world’s dumbest criminals” stories to shame.  Everyone makes the exact same mistakes, and nearly always gets caught.  So, if you’re an amateur academic thief and are considering going pro, here are some tips for how to make your poorly-thought-out cheating schemes truly amazing.

1) Leave hyperlinks in.  In my AP U.S. History classes  I assign a list of several dozen vocabulary terms at the beginning of each unit, and the students have to write a paragraph about each term that are due on the day of the unit test.  During my first year at Robinson I was checking my students’ terms when I came across something that, on paper, looked like this:

Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis KG (31 December 1738 – 5 October 1805), styled Viscount Brome between 1753 and 1762 and known as The Earl Cornwallis between 1762 and 1792, was a British Army officer and colonial administrator. In the United States and the United Kingdom he is best remembered as one of the leading British generals in the American War of Independence. His surrender in 1781 to a combined American and French force at the Siege of Yorktown ended significant hostilities in North America.[4]

This was, obviously, so blatant that it was just sad.  Here’s how the conversation with the girl went:

Me: Kate, why are there random underlined words in your IDs?
Kate: I thought they were important terms to remember, so I underlined them so I’d study them.
Me: “Colonial administrator” is an important term?
Kate: I mean, it has to do with the Colonies, so yeah.
Me: Interesting.  Do you also underline numbers that link to footnotes that aren’t actually on your paper?
Kate: Um… yeah?
Me: Kate, I know you copied and pasted this from Wikipedia, so just let it go.
Kate: I don’t even know what Wikipedia is, Mr. Drake!  I didn’t copy this!

You’re a high school student and you don’t know what Wikipedia is?  Wow, and I thought you were full of shit before.  Idiot.

2) Outkick your coverage.  I caught a lot of APUSH students plagiarizing their take-home essays because they ran afoul of one important concept to remember when cheating: the teacher knows that your writing didn’t go from being a cluster to being textbook-ready overnight.  This can be easy or hard to catch based on the ability and smarts of the student who may or may not have perpetrated it; since most essays available to be copied from the internet are good or at least serviceable, there may have been some upper-level students of mine who got away with it over the years.  My last year at Robinson I graded a take-home document-based essay from our student body president that was literally the best APUSH essay I’ve ever seen.  I was disappointed, though, because I was afraid he’d plagiarized it.  It’s not that I thought this guy would copy an essay, but I also thought it was too good to be true.  I spent probably an hour scouring the internet trying to find that essay somewhere, but never did.  It was just that amazing.

Another student on that same assignment, though, completely outkicked her coverage.  Her introductory paragraph was something that would’ve made renowned historian and alleged fellow plagiarist Doris Kearns Goodwin bow down in praise.  Then, something happened that was just weird.  After the copied introduction, she did her own work on the rest of the essay.  Maybe she thought it was less of a sin to copy only a portion of it, but the stark difference in writing style and quality between the introduction and the rest of it was so night-and-day that it would’ve been obvious cheating even to someone who didn’t know a damn thing about AP history writing.

To this girl’s credit, she didn’t try some ham-handed denial like the aforementioned case.  She readily admitted to it, and I called her mother, who is a teacher.  I think she was grounded for a long time.   That’s something else to keep in mind, kids.  This ain’t Vegas; what happens at school will make its way home.

I really hope this isn’t the method that the UNC communications professor used to catch Erik Highsmith.  Who knows, maybe those 5th graders he copied are future Pulitzer winners, but more than likely, it’s just unimaginably sad.

3) Completely ignore the assignment’s parameters.  This one happened the other day in our World Civ class.  We had our students create “trading cards” of famous figures from Roman history.  They were supposed to put a picture on the front along with the person’s name and “position” (senator, general, emperor, whatever), and then put “statistics” (birth/death dates, accomplishments, interesting facts) on the back.  The stuff on the back was supposed to be little blurbs of a few words – not complete sentences, and not incredibly detailed.  We even gave them samples to use as a template of sorts.

One student who has not turned in much work on time gave me his card, and initially I was excited because he did something.  Upon further review, however, he had turned in a card on which the front was done more or less correctly, and then the back was full of paragraphs detailing Emperor Diocletian’s life in exhaustive detail, and they even had the hyperlinks included!  The paragraphs had a lot of information, but in addition to being obviously copied, they did nothing towards fulfilling the clearly-laid-out requirements of the project.  This damn-the-torpedoes approach has gotten countless students caught over the years, and is by far among the easiest methods to catch.

4) Copy your fellow mediocrity-dwellers.  This isn’t from-the-internet plagiarism, but it’s still half-baked and it’s still hilarious every time I catch some kid who thinks they’re being clever do this.  Three of my students left the classroom during the last test to take it in our special programs classroom.  Upon grading them, I discovered that these three students missed the exact same questions, and had the exact same wrong answers.  With the assistance of our math teacher, I was able to calculate that there was a 0.000000095 percent chance of this happening by chance.  When I confronted one of the students, holding up 0.000000095% printed on a piece of paper in 100-point font, he admitted to it.

Emporer Trojan

The identical test alone wasn’t why this was so easy to catch, though.  It was sad because they worked together and still only managed a 79.  Since I was feeling snarky that day, I split a 79 three ways and gave all three of them a 27 instead of a 0 to kind of prove a point.

The same thing happens on regular assignments that students turn in; they’ll get the same answers wrong, misspell the same words – no, the Roman Empire did not reach its peak under “Emporer Trojan” – and turn in identical papers at the same time so they’re back-to-back in the grading so that I see them literally 30 seconds apart, and expect to get away with it.  You really thought that one through, Danny Ocean.

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I’m aware that many of my students over the years may not have been properly educated on what constitutes plagiarism, as I mentioned above when talking about the more unintentional forms of it.  In addition to just being sad, though, copying and pasting work does nothing to help you learn.  You’re in school for a reason, kids!  Don’t waste it by copying stuff off the internet, not even bothering to read it or tailor it to fit the assignment, then turn it in.  What do you get out of that?  Even if you’re cheating because you’re afraid to get a ‘0’ for not turning anything in, don’t you think the 50 or whatever that you’d get for mediocre work will still carry with it more rewards than copying something that’s going to get a ‘0’ anyway because we’re going to catch you???

Just do your own work, people.  I’ll miss being able to tell the hilarious stories of how I caught you red-handed, but at least you’ll be learning something.

I’m not teaching anything

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“Congratulations,” I told my freshmen on Wednesday, “you’ve made it through 1/16th of your high school career.”

It’s awfully nice to finally have a fall break.  Between moving into a new facility, building a new curriculum, and everything else that goes with working in a high school, the teachers probably worked harder than a lot of the students did over the last nine weeks.  So we earned this four-day weekend.

It was also nice to see that some of that work paid off.  Grades aren’t the sole measure of student achievement, of course, but they’re definitely a starting point.  For our inaugural grading period, a plurality of my students got an ‘A’, and over half of the students got an ‘A’ or ‘B’.  Only about ten percent failed the first quarter, but even among those students, many of them made tremendous strides between Day 1 and Day 45, so I’m optimistic that they’ll continue to make progress and be successful.

And yet, despite all this anecdotal success, I’m apparently not teaching anything.

What I looked like when asked by a student if I was going to teach them anything.

This was brought to my attention during my 4th period class this past Tuesday.  While going over what we’d be doing throughout the rest of our unit on Rome, one of my students – who is also the president of our fledgling student government – raised her hand and asked, with an utterly serious tone and facial expression, “Mr. Drake, are you ever going to actually teach us anything?”

At first I didn’t know how to react.  If she was serious, it’s a slappable offense.  If she’s joking, I’m still not sure how to take it.  And her classmates’ reactions betrayed their horror at what she had just said.

She immediately walked it back.  “THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT! THAT’S NOT WHAT I MEANT!!!!” she screamed.  “What I meant was, are you ever going to stand in front of the class and lecture us, instead of just teaching us through your highly entertaining, informative videos that I treasure and give my highest priority?”

Strong recovery.

We had a long laugh about her foot-in-mouth moment and we went on about our day.  But later, I started thinking about what she had said, and what it reveals about students’ thoughts on education.  They have been conditioned throughout their school-going lives that “teaching” is standing in front of a classroom and giving notes while the students dutifully listen.  And with a few exceptions, that’s not what we do at RTHS.  We want the kids to learn by doing, by using technology, by questioning things – not  by being told information.  Now, sometimes lecturing has its place – as my AP U.S. History students from Robinson would attest, I can get real wordy in that class – but it’s certainly not the only effective teaching tool that can be utilized.  I guess one of our goals as the year goes on is to continue to show the students that there are multiple pathways to knowledge and learning, and a lot of them aren’t teacher-centered.

But before I start on that quest, I’m going to enjoy the rest of my fall break.

In defense of AP

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At my school, I’m in the odd position of having being hired on spec.  My specialty is AP U.S. History, taught primarily to juniors; since we only have 9th graders at RTHS, though, we won’t be offering that class until 2014-2015.  So for now, World Civilizations it is.

Despite some of its shortcomings, I’m a huge believer in the Advanced Placement program as a mechanism to provide challenges and opportunities for the high school students who seek them out.  I don’t like it when schools are judged by the number of AP classes students take, because I don’t think schools should force ill-prepared students into such classes, but I think a school with a robust AP program can do wonders for the kids.

And that is why articles like this one by The Atlantic‘s John Tierney hack me off to no end.

AP Classes Are a Scam

In this article, Tierney lays out several criticisms of the Advanced Placement program, but most of them are such huge misrepresentations, generalizations, and distortions that I wanted to counter some of them.

AP courses are not, in fact, remotely equivalent to the college-level courses they are said to approximate. Before teaching in a high school, I taught for almost 25 years at the college level, and almost every one of those years my responsibilities included some equivalent of an introductory American government course. The high-school AP course didn’t begin to hold a candle to any of my college courses. My colleagues said the same was true in their subjects.

I love this “argument” – it was true at my school so it must be true everywhere.  There are good teachers and bad teachers, good AP courses and bad AP courses.  That’s true everywhere.  My experience as an AP reader have shown me that; I read plenty of essays that make it clear that, although the student is probably pretty bright, they simply weren’t taught anything during the year.  In other words, the essay is well-written technically but says nothing.  Alumni at my former school consistently returned to tell current students that if they could hack AP U.S. History or the AP English courses we offered, they could hack it in college because AP – especially the writing component of it – was considerably more challenging.

Several years ago, the College Board began imposing an audit on all AP teachers nationwide.  Teachers had to submit a syllabus and course outline to prove that the course was rigorous enough to match up with a freshman-level course.  This process was signed off on by college faculty members.  College professors at the AP Reading consistently say that the AP U.S. History course and exam are at the very least analogous to a freshman-level course.  And since they have more experience with the AP experience than Mr. Tierney, I’m going to go with them on this one.

The scourge of AP courses has spread into more and more high schools across the country, and the number of students taking these courses is growing by leaps and bounds. Studies show that increasing numbers of the students who take them are marginal at best, resulting in growing failure rates on the exams. The school where I taught essentially had an open-admissions policy for almost all its AP courses. I would say that two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.

This is partially true, but blaming the College Board for this issue misses the point entirely.  Mr. Tierney, no one told you to dumb down your course for the kids who didn’t need to be there.  At Robinson we had open enrollment in our AP courses too, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t advise the students.  Every fall, two months or so before AP U.S. History started in January, I sent a letter out to every student enrolled in the class – it became known school-wide as “the fear of God letter.”  It provided a brutally honest assessment of what students could expect – up to two hours of homework per night, frequent writing assignments, difficult assessments designed in the mold of the AP exam, and high-level in-class work that would challenge even the brightest among us.  It usually worked – several students who didn’t need to be in the course dropped.  And I never deviated from my plan for the course because a student was failing, because they had been warned.  I saw it as a valuable lesson in personal accountability.

And sometimes, just sometimes, a student who “did not belong there” rose to the challenge, worked his or her ass off, and did well enough on the exam to get college credit.  I always predicted my students’ exam score the night before the exam; I was almost always within one point, but I had several students over the years who had no business making anything above a ‘1’ take the exam and make a ‘3’ or ‘4’.  Good for them.

Despite the rapidly growing enrollments in AP courses, large percentages of minority students are essentially left out of the AP game. And so, in this as in so many other ways, they are at a competitive disadvantage when it comes to college admissions.

Another partial truth.  The College Board provides a fee reduction for students who qualify for free and reduced lunch (FRL).  In my former school system, students in the FRL program didn’t pay a dime, and I would like to see the College Board adopt this policy across the nation.  They make plenty of money to offset it.

…[T]he AP curriculum leads to rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry. The courses cover too much material and do so too quickly and superficially. In short, AP courses are a forced march through a preordained subject, leaving no time for a high-school teacher to take her or his students down some path of mutual interest. The AP classroom is where intellectual curiosity goes to die.

Absolutely!  It would be really nice if the College Board could redesign their courses to provide for the teaching of essential skills while also allowing teachers and students to explore issues more in depth!  Oh, wait, they have.  The AP Course Redesign requires the use of more primary source analysis, critical reading and writing, and other skills that colleges have requested their students to have.  And since rote knowledge is not as emphasized as it was before, teachers can spend more time and go into more detail on subjects of “mutual interest.”  Of course, the downside of this is that this will usually translate into paths of “the teacher’s interest.”  You all had that history professor – the one who flew through the first two hundred years of history, spent MONTHS on the Civil War, then blew threw the rest of the course.  Say what you want about the content-heavy nature of the current AP exam, but at least it kept teachers from pulling crap like that.

There are plenty of beefs one could have with the College Board; one statement Mr. Tierney makes with which I completely agree is that the College board is “a huge ‘non-profit’ organization that operates like a big business.”  But the legitimate critique of its business practices shouldn’t outweigh the benefits that motivated high school students can glean from taking AP courses.

My AP philosophy was reflected in this statement from my course syllabus, stolen shamelessly from my friend and mentor Laura Huffman: “My number-one goal for you in this course is to learn how to think like a historian and learn something about history, and have some fun while doing it.  And if you get college credit, that’s icing on the cake.”  The best compliment I ever received as an APUSH teacher was one I heard from numerous students: “Mr. Drake, your class prepared me for college-level work more than anything else I did in high school.”  I’m not saying this to brag on my own course or my teaching ability; I followed the AP course prescriptions, injected some of my own flavor and interests, told jokes during class to keep it light, and – most importantly – pushed my students every single day.  That’s what all good AP teachers should do, and the students are the ones who reap the rewards.

And I don’t see how all those great things can be perceived as a “scam.”

Chipper

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When I went to my first Braves game in 1991 and saw them win their first of fourteen consecutive division titles, my parents bought me a pennant as we left Fulton County Stadium.  Below the tomahawk logo and the red “1991 NATIONAL LEAGUE WEST CHAMPIONS” banner was listed everyone on the team’s roster at that time.  Over the years, I lamented the departure of many of the names on that roster.  Terry Pendleton, Mark Lemke, Sid Bream, and Ron Gant were gone by the mid-1990s.  The big names on that pennant left later – Tom Glavine in 2002, John Smoltz in 2008, and finally Bobby Cox in 2010.  With every player who retired or left, it felt like a part of my childhood melting away.

Chipper Jones’s name wasn’t on that pennant – he was still coming through the minors one year after being drafted ahead of Todd Van Poppel with the top pick in the MLB Draft – but he is a piece of my childhood.  When Chipper made his big-league debut, I had just started fifth grade, which is a staggering thought.  Players came and went, success ebbed and flowed, the Braves even stopped playing on TBS – but Chipper was the one constant through the years.  The last remaining piece of the good ol’ days when the Braves routinely won the division by 15 or more games and won a playoff series every now and again.  The greatest Atlanta Braves hitter of all-time.

One of several Chipper Jones rookie cards I have, this one from 1991.

As I watched Friday’s Wild Card game slip away from the Braves in the late innings – thanks in part, ironically, to a costly error Chipper committed during what should’ve been a double play ball – it was surreal to think that I was watching the last Braves game in which Chipper would be playing.  With all due respect to all the players I listed earlier, Chipper Jones is the Atlanta Braves.  I clapped and jumped around my empty house when he got an infield single in what turned out to be his last at-bat, and was angry when the Braves fans’ barrage of bottles after the now-infamous infield-fly incident prevented a final glorious curtain call.

But mostly, I was sad.  Chipper has said time and time again that he has no regrets, and I guess that’s good because I think plenty of Braves fans have enough regrets on his behalf.  Regrets that he only won one World Series ring despite several seasons when the Braves were a dominant squad.  Or that the 1994 strike and his failing knees kept him out of enough games for him to give him a chance to reach 3,000 hits or 500 home runs.  But despite all that, he never complained or bemoaned his lot as his body let him down.  I feel fortunate that I was at Turner Field for one of his last milestones – his 1500th career RBI on a solo home run against the Marlins in 2011.  It was awesome to see someone pushing 40 still be able to hit the ball and field like that.

The Braves should have a great squad in 2013; the pitching is solid, and they have several awesome power hitters in Freddie Freeman and Jason Heyward.  But without #10 at third base or “Crazy Train” blaring, it just won’t be the same.  The last link to my childhood with the Braves is gone, but the memories are plentiful and amazing.