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October 1, 1992
Vol. 50
No. 2

Voices: The Classroom Teacher / Gabriel's Poem

      As a concerned citizen and writer, I am appalled by the fairly common reports of plagiarism. These incidents occur among politicians, academics, researchers, businesspersons, and respected authors.
      How should a teacher deal with a student who submits obviously plagiarized work? Is the student's exposure as a plagiarist and subsequent humiliation the key action that must be taken to stem class plagiarism? What of the individual student's future research and writing activities? Should the student's plagiarism be hidden from the rest of the class?
      Given today's moral climate, and students' lack of self-esteem and unpreparedness for research, most teachers will, if they have not already, be forced to deal with plagiarism in their classrooms. Eleven years ago, Gabriel helped me decide how to deal with this issue.
      Gabriel was a student in a combination grade 5/6 class. The students had individualized reading and mathematics programs, but worked cooperatively in science, social science, and the arts.
      Toward the end of the year, I asked the students to individually compile personal anthologies of their favorite readings or writings. They were given independent classtime to work on these anthologies. During an independent session, Gabriel had little to do. When asked if he needed help or wanted to share what he had chosen, he declined.
      The next week several students shared lengthy collections of their favorite writers and their own original pieces. After two sessions of presentations, Gabriel announced he was ready. He enhanced his “thin” anthology with a dramatic reading of selections by William Wordsworth, William Blake, and e. e. cummings. After he had presented these works most engagingly, Gabriel proudly told the class he would share his original poem, “My Favorite Things.” To my dismay, he then proceeded to read word for word the lyrics of the Rodgers and Hammerstein song from The Sound of Music. Gabriel finished triumphantly to the applause of his peers, who apparently hadn't seen the movie. They did critique the fact that his selection of verse didn't justify the three-week research period given for anthology compilation. On the other hand, the students really enjoyed Gabriel's recitations.
      Gabriel took the critiques, well aware that the gravest one that could be raised had eluded his peers. He promised to enhance his selection of poems and “compose” more on his own.
      The proverbial buck had solidly stopped at my desk. I knew for a certainty that Gabriel had copied and presented to his unsuspecting peers a published lyric as his own. Did he think I would be hoodwinked along with the students? Was he unaware of the lyric's widespread fame among the vast audience of American musical lovers?
      As a writer, a reader, and a teacher, I had to confront Gabriel and force him to admit this act of plagiarism. Rock music lyric suits notwithstanding, I could not let Gabriel get away with this lie. But I also did not want to damage or destroy him as a reader or writer, or destroy his love of literature by linking it with public exposure. I needed to get him to admit the truth, but help him to save face with his peers.
      I decided to speak to him privately. At our meeting, I began by praising the poem and by asking Gabriel how he came to write it. I hoped that Gabriel would privately acknowledge his lie.
      No such luck.
      “Oh, Mrs. Reissman, I am so glad you liked it,” said Gabriel, whose eyes shone with pleasure. “I just relaxed, and a list of my favorite things came to me.”
      “Were you listening to music?” I asked.
      “No, Mrs. Reissman,” Gabriel responded innocently.
      I gave Gabriel a cassette recording of The Sound of Music. I played “My Favorite Things.” Then I waited to see Gabriel's reaction.
      He looked down, unwilling to make eye contact. Finally as the piece ended, he looked up. Ah, I thought, caught in the act—let's hear what you have to say now, Gabriel.
      “You know, Mrs. Reissman, how you tell us that all writers draw on the same ideas like love, friendship, birth, death, and survival. Well, favorite things are a common topic, too. Maybe, the guy who wrote this song and I thought of the same topic and we `kind of matched up.'”
      “Gabriel, this song was written long before you were born!”
      “Okay, calm down, Mrs. Reissman. Isn't it possible I just thought up the same words many years later? Why not just let those guys take the credit. I'll just put the poem under their names in the anthology. Then I'll write three poems by myself. I really mean my own poems. Don't tell on me to the other kids, please, Mrs. Reissman.” Tears welled up in Gabriel's eyes.
      “No, Gabriel, you'll tell them what you found out if you like. But as for me, I can't wait to hear the Gabriel original poems.”
      I saw relief and gratitude in Gabriel's face. Both of us recognized the consequences of his claims of authorship. Yet Gabriel had admitted his lie to me and to himself. He had acknowledged his act of plagiarism in a positive way. The class never knew about Gabriel's original plagiarism. He attributed the work to its proper authors in his final anthology, which was filled with “Gabriel” poems, profusely illustrated.
      Gabriel had provided me with a plagiarism intervention strategy that dealt with the issue but supported his development as a lover of literature and literacy. He had gone past plagiarism to take his place as a poet in the legitimate circle of writers.

      Rose Reissman has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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