Perhaps it’s time we all think about helping our students understand plagiarism, responsibility, and copyright violation. All of us. The use of Teachers-Pay-Teachers often shows teachers taking work from published authors and repurposing it (making a new anchor chart, for instance) and selling the material. When those teachers are confronted, some have responded, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what plagiarism meant.” Though that’s disappointing, perhaps from some it is true.
Most importantly, we can’t go back to schools thinking students have not watched what is now happening at the RNC. Some will come back questioning. Some will come back convinced they too can do the same and then just repeatedly claim, “no, it’s not plagiarism” or “it’s not my fault” or “it was 93% true.” And some will simply come back confused.
So, what are the conversations that can be had? I think there are three – moving from most concrete to most complex. You should decide which ones are most appropriate for the students you teach.
The Easiest: What Plagiarism Looks Like
1. The side-by-side video and text comparison of First Lady Michelle Obama’s speech and Mrs. Melania Trump’s speech will allow students to have a conversation about plagiarism, attributing sources, paraphrasing without attribution. Because the focus was home, family, children, and big dreams, we should be able to do this as an a-political conversation. While there are many sites showing the comparison, I like this one. It lets you listen to one speech, while the words in question appear. Then you hear the next speech and the repeated words are highlighted. Kids can quickly see the exact lifting and then can have a conversation about paraphrasing. Then you might ask “Even though the Obama administration has said it has no comment, how do you think Mrs. Obama might feel?” For kids ready to have a more complex conversation, there’s the added layer that Melania claims to have written the speech mostly herself while others point out that big speeches such as this are handled by speech writers. Who did the plagiarizing? Who’s responsibility is it to check for this? Who should have stepped up and claimed the mistake and then assured it wouldn’t happen again?
Harder: Taking Responsibility
2. President Obama plagiarized his good friend Governor Deval Patrick in a speech when he (Obama) was running against Clinton (the primary). When the similarities in the two speeches were pointed out to Obama, he immediately said he “should have given Patrick credit.”
He explained that he and Patrick had discussed Obama using the same structure and comments for his own speech and he should have said that in the speech. Patrick went on TV confirming that he had given Obama permission. Still, at the moment that Obama used the material without attribution, it was plagiarism and when pointed out, Obama admitted wrongdoing. Students (by sixth grade) could easily read this article (same link as immediately above link) and then compare that to this article that shows how the RNC and Donald Trump’s campaign are responding to the current situation.
While we all know that the point isn’t to create a classroom climate of “rephrase and repent,” an honest explanation of how something happened and ownership of wrongdoing is never a bad lesson to learn.
Even Harder: Copyright Infringement and Decency
3. The entrance of Trump at the convention on Monday night to Queen’s hit “We are the Champions” was done with legal permission given to the stadium to play the music but without permission of Queen for Trump to present a situation that appears that Queen endorsed Trump. While copyright lawyers will point out that the license to play the music was given to the location and therefore anyone using the place can request the music, Queen had already reached out once to the Trump campaign and told him to stop using that song at his rallies. This particular song, with lead singer Freddie Mercury’s powerful voice, is a strange choice for Mr. Trump (or minions) to have chosen for his entrance. Freddie died of AIDS in 1991 and “many argue [he] would not have been a supporter of Trump.” The entrance of a public figure in a dramatic moment with a particular song can be seen as an endorsement of the singers. And, since Queen has already reached out and said their group does not give explicit or implicit endorsement to any politician, then one would wonder why Trump’s campaign would not honor that request. Why do something when you’ve been asked to stop?
The best article I’ve found that explains the multiple perspectives on this particular situation is here. This article certainly does give the reader the chance to be surprised, to see places where the author assumes some background knowledge, and a most importantly, places to challenge, change, or confirm thoughts. This article should be read and discussed by students grades 8 and up. It’s a complex text – more because of content and ethical considerations than vocabulary – that will certainly continue to be a part of our lives in this web-based world.
These are tough conversations to have with kids. But they should be had. It’s not a political conversation; it’s a conversation about identifying plagiarism; ways of accepting or rejecting responsibility; and, the nuances of copyright infringement and decency toward one another. Our kids need us to have these conversations with them.
Teachers change tomorrow, each and every day.