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Cheating Yourself

Sometimes, my 6-year-old cheats. During a game of Qwirkle (an incredible game that I can’t praise enough), she sometimes peeks in the bag as she’s picking out her allotted number of tiles. Yet we never play the game for points. She just likes to get the tiles that she thinks are prettier so she can make a pretty “qwirkle.” So I raise my eyebrows or halfheartedly say “don’t look” but haven’t made a big deal about it. After all she’s only 6, and it’s just a game, right?

But then I realized something. Cheating puts winning over everything else. By cheating, she lessens the fun of actually playing the game. The fun shouldn’t all be in the win, it should be in the process.

This is something I’ve been struggling to teach my students for years. I think it’s bad enough when they pull an all-nighter to write a paper—when I’ve been methodically leading them through a multi-revision writing process. But if you want to see me really mad—narrowed eyes, thin lips kind of mad—watch me after I’ve read a plagiarized paper.

I know my students’ writing pretty well. I’ve worked with them one-on-one. I’ve seen what they produce in class. I’m familiar with the way they phrase ideas and the words they choose. So when something shows up on my desk that feels markedly different—even if it’s a single sentence—alarm bells clang. I head to the Internet, do a quick search, and, sure enough, find the original paper online. And, even though it only happens once a year or so, I get raging mad.

I get mad because I feel insulted that this student thinks I don’t know him well enough to know his own writing. I get mad because it negates everything I’ve been trying to teach all year about integrity and the writing process. I get mad because it has put me in a very bad mood, which is unfair to all of the cheater’s classmates because papers should not be graded by teachers in bad moods. So I stop grading. And that puts me in a worse mood because, with as many students as I have, my grading is timed to the day; each day brings more work, and if I fall behind, everything falls behind.

I get mad because the cheater is hurting himself. By plagiarizing, he denies himself the opportunity to grow, learn, and improve because he’s negated the process and focused solely on the end result. And, with this act, he demonstrates that he has no faith in his own abilities or intelligence. I imagine this will deplete his self-confidence over time as his achievements are based on faulty foundations.

I get mad because this is like robbery in the writing world. Before I write, I think about the topic for a long time before I ever start typing, whether it’s a college recommendation letter, a poem, or an article for Family Times. The idea hovers at the edge of my consciousness as I wash dishes, drive to work or push my son on the swing.

At some moment—usually when I’m away from the computer—something will click and the whole thing suddenly makes sense. Plagiarizing takes someone else’s hours of thinking as well as their actual words.

Some students are surprised when they discover that plagiarism includes the stealing of ideas as well as words. Others are shocked to realize that the consequences are just as severe if they plagiarize one sentence or the whole paper. Some do it out of ignorance and others out of laziness. No matter what, plagiarism is taken very seriously in academia.

So how does all of this relate to my daughter peeking as she picks her tiles? I think ethics on a small scale can lead to ethics on a large scale. I wish to remind her of the values that matter to me as I try to help her become the young woman I know she can be. It’s my job to teach her how to be that person.

To help her avoid cheating in future, I’ll remind her to have faith in her own abilities, to be empathetic to her playmates, to enjoy the journey as much as the destination, and to remember that learning looks a lot like making mistakes. Let’s all try to think about this: A’s and wins are less important than helping our kids be their most compassionate, confident and courageous selves.

Emma Kress, a teacher at Cicero-North Syracuse High School, has held a variety of educational posts at levels from pre-K to 12th grade. Send comments about this article to editorial@familytimes.biz.

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