Allowing space for surprises

(I wrote this article for Vol. 14 №1 of Edu-Care, a journal published by Centre for Learning, Hyderabad, India.)

While facilitating a writing workshop with school students in the summer of 2009, I noticed a pattern of strange occurrences. Some of the pieces that were being turned in sounded nothing like their authors’ other work. Expressions such as ‘four-leaved clover’, ‘a poem as lovely as a tree’, and ‘jolly heaven above’ struck me as particularly odd, coming from my students. The words seemed borrowed, forced, even inauthentic. I could not get myself to be glad about any supposed gains in vocabulary, since I was sure something was not quite right. It took me a while to realize what was going on, and to name the problem — plagiarism! Thanks to Google, I discovered that my students had not simply ‘lifted’ a few words, but entire texts. Poems such as Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees’, Richard Edwards’ ‘Good Luck’, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘The Vagabond’, among others, were being passed off as the students’ own work. There was no change in the actual wording of the texts. The poet’s name was merely replaced with the respective student’s name.

I was furious. Here was I, thinking of myself as a well-intentioned teacher, designing a new writing programme completely devoted to topics that students wanted to write about. I was certain that students would love the opportunity to write about things that mattered to them, experiences that held personal significance beyond pleasing the teacher and scoring good marks. The brief was simple: we’d work towards putting together a community magazine; students could write about any topic under the sun, as long as they kept their audience in mind; they would get peer and teacher feedback on their work; all drafts could be revised and shaped into final versions; each student would keep a portfolio consisting of drafts, feedback, and final versions.

All my certainties dissolved. My stance changed. From a caring and supportive facilitator, I became the image I loathed — the despicable authority figure. I felt wronged. I accused them of cheating. How could my students do this to me? Why were they taking advantage of my friendliness? Perhaps they didn’t deserve my affection after all. They weren’t serious about their work, so what was the point of investing so much of myself into what I envisioned for them. Huh! Nobody takes teachers seriously, especially young novices. A million such thoughts ran through my head.

Months later, as I looked through the journal entries written during that teaching stint, something hit me. I had missed something that had been staring right into my face. I had decided to work with learner-chosen topics because I wanted students to rid themselves of their dependence on essays memorized from composition books. How naïve of me to imagine that students would break out of their established patterns overnight! In the absence of a composition book to memorize from, they had simply gone home, picked up their textbooks, and memorized poems from there. When they came back for the next workshop session, the memorized poem wrote itself out in class.

While I had set out with wonder-eyed enthusiasm about the rich possibilities that lay in using learner-chosen topics, I had not anticipated the challenges this would pose to my students. The experience of another teacher, who tried encouraging student voice in academic writing in her own classroom, taught me that students resisted the new way of doing things because “they didn’t want to have to think that hard. They wanted me to tell them what to write. It was easier that way. And it was what they were used to.” (Gemmell 2008: 65).

It also occurred to me that my simple brief might have been excruciatingly daunting for those 10–14 year olds. Their previous writing experiences in school and at home might have been completely different from this one. Writing for a real audience, giving and receiving feedback after carefully reading and thinking about their peers’ work, and putting their writing through a process that includes multiple drafts to be entered into a portfolio — all of this could have brought on tremendous pressure, though it was intended to help them become better, flexible, resourceful writers.

From another compassionate teacher-activist, bell hooks (1994), I learnt that changing one’s habits of being involves pain; we must respect that pain. In the willingness to depart from what one’s mind is accustomed to, there is a commitment to transformation. This deserves recognition.

My certainties about what constitutes plagiarism also found themselves challenged after I read Pennycook (1996). I came upon question after difficult question; some raised by Pennycook, others that came rushing to my mind as I tried to struggle with his. Do notions of authorship vary across cultures and periods in history? Why are some acts of borrowing more legitimate than others? Quoting authorities on a subject is an accepted way of displaying scholarship, and researchers pride themselves on the number of pages their bibliographies run into. What about teachers whose lectures contain large chunks of material memorized from a particular book and delivered to unsuspecting students, without acknowledging the source? How must we respond to teachers who expect their students to reproduce answers from notes dictated in class, and penalize students for expressing their personal views? When a student copies from his classmate, why do we respond with moral outrage not meant for the one who parrots the teacher’s words?

Around the same time, I encountered a wonderful article written by Lakdawalla (2010). She narrates an incident wherein “a fairly bright and well-behaved” student was found copying from a hidden notebook during an examination. She considered various options — 1. scolding him, tearing his answer script, and throwing it in the bin 2. taking him to the Headmistress’ office and getting him punished 3. calling his parents to school, and complaining about his bad behaviour. Those are the usual options. Instead, Lakdawalla approached the situation with great maturity. She thought of the child as someone to ‘relate to’, and not ‘deal with’. No, she didn’t let him off the hook. She pointed out his mistake and asked him to mend his ways; at the same time, exercised enough care not to violate his dignity. I love the fact that Lakdawalla was able to look at the ‘act’ as separate from the ‘individual’. She responded to the particular incident and behaviour, instead of passing judgement on the child’s character and upbringing or humiliating him in front of other students — something teachers routinely do when they sense a threat to their authority.

While my focus here has been on plagiarism, I intend to draw home a larger point — that of the classroom being a fairly unpredictable place, though we might try to domesticate it by introducing rituals of power and predictability. Being open to surprises, and responding to them creatively, is what we are called upon to do. It’s going to be tough, of course. But surprises are fun.

References

Gemmell, R. 2008. Encouraging Student Voice in Academic Writing. English Journal 98(2). 64–68.

hooks, b. 1994. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. New York: Routledge.

Lakdawalla, Z. N. 2010. We learn from mistakes. Teacher Plushttp://www.teacherplus.org/notes-from-a-teachers-diary/we-learn-from-mistakes

Pennycook, A. 1996. Borrowing others’ words: Text, ownership, memory and plagiarism. TESOL Quarterly 30(2), 201–230.

Writer, educator and researcher

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