“My grandma did it”

The last 3 months, while very busy, stressful and infuriating, have provided a wealth of eye-opening experiences. It’s been back to school in a big way.

Having had little to do with the school system in the last 18 years, other than swanning in now and again on a TIE contract (Theatre In Education – think Legs Akimbo from League of Gentlemen) to make disenfranchised schoolchildren engage their minds through the medium of drama, I knew I was woefully unprepared for the role the moment I accepted.

Term 1 saw me planning lessons the night before class, or sometimes the hour before class, as I was recruited at the very last minute and was still working in my other jobs until the day before the first day of term. It also saw me throw several hissy fits about Things Staff Members Should Probably Be Told More Than Two Days In Advance. Like when reports are due.

This term is slightly better, I know vaguely what shape I want the classes to take. I’m aware that there will be exams, that I have to write them, and the date the reports are due. I’m teaching Shakespeare to two year groups, so I’m on home territory and having fun at least some of the time. And I don’t know if everyone just took a valium over the half term break, or if I’ve changed something for the better, but even the worst classes last term are markedly better this term. Admittedly, in at least one of those groups I had to put the entire class in detention to achieve that result.

But today I want to talk about truth, lies and teenagers. Having spent a wonderful class exploring Shakespeare’s Sonnet 18 (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day” – for those who don’t know their sonnets by number) my favourite class were sent off to attempt a sonnet of their own. I didn’t expect wonder, beauty and genius. I had to do this in my twenties and I failed miserably, not having a poetic bone in my body. However, one of the lessons I’ve learned so far is that teenagers are easily capable of wonder, beauty and genius on a surprisingly regular basis, so I didn’t rule it out.

The following week I gathered in the homework. One girl was very keen for me to read her sonnet and clearly very proud of her work. One boy handed his over telling me it was definitely the worst sonnet that has ever been written. I took them home to mark. The girl was right, it was brilliant, beautiful, moving and extraordinarily well structured. Unfortunately, a quick search on Google showed it was also written by someone else. The giveaway clue that made me resort to the internet? Punctuation. Although I expect wonder, beauty and genius on a regular basis, I can count on the fingers of one finger how many of my students are capable of punctuating their genius correctly. A further search of all the submitted efforts revealed two more plagiarised sonnets, both friends of the original culprit.

All efforts duly flagged to the appropriate authorities, I headed in to school the following day chewing over how to tackle the offending parties. I didn’t have long to think about it. Eager for praise on her wonderful work, girl 1 bounded over to ask if I’d read her work. I took the opportunity for a quiet word. I expected excuses, possibly shamefacedness. I got a virtuoso performance of hurt, wide-eyed innocence.

“My grandma helped me, she doesn’t know it’s wrong to copy, I don’t even have a computer at home” were the main lines of defence. I assured her I knew she wasn’t the only guilty party, but that it was clearly not her own work. There was some mutinous muttering as she stomped away.

Later in the day a colleague caught me for a word. “One of your students came to me and told me that she’s worried about her homework” she began. “She’s handed in a poem that she published on the internet a while ago,” the tale continued, “and she’s worried that you’ll think she’s copied it.” My colleague continued on to say said student had told her how much she loves writing in her spare time, and that she writes a lot of poems. My colleague had advised her to bring me some examples of her work if she was concerned, to prove her tale.

A cunning, pre-emptive strike it certainly was, but some major flaws were immediately evident. 1. How had this student managed to open a UK / Ireland Yahoo account from Lima? 2. Why was she posing online as ‘Chris’? 3. Why was a Peruvian teenage girl with a very Latin name posing online as British or Irish Chris, a man, writing poetry to a female friend and checking for possible responses online?

The end result of the saga? A day’s in-school suspension for all offending parties. Two students with an amiable, ‘it’s a fair cop, guv’ attitude, and hopefully no will to try it again. One with little concept of what she’s done wrong and the cold light of revenge in her eyes. I’ll ensure I don’t turn my back to the audience in classes for the next few weeks.

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