For a moment, it was difficult to know whether to ascertain how to approach the situation. Mark, Year 10, reluctant reader and with a renowned and repeatedly announced phobia of poetry, was standing in front of me, a handwritten poem outstretched for me to read, his face triumphant.
It was the last week of term, I was tired, and so admittedly it took me a moment or two.
Dark clouds are smouldering into red
While down the craters morning burns
Impressive stuff! What vivid imagery, I love the use of the word ‘smouldering'… then the penny dropped, and somewhere in the depths of my memory, I recalled reading those words before. They were not quite Mark’s original creation, but Siegfred Sassoon’s very own. As my face marked recognition, Mark’s took a slightly more sheepish demeanour.
Plagiarism is no joke, but the way in which we outline this to students could be a little more robust in its approach. As an English teacher, I teach pupils the craft and beauty of the written word, and have been guilty of assuming that authorial respect simply follows. I learned a powerful lesson that day, and one which my training, and experience of school had yet to teach me: that I have an obligation to teach students the value of intellectual property, but also the impact of plagiarism.
Why is this important?
When studying literature, we critique and applaud writers and poets for their intrinsic approach to taking the ordinary and making it extraordinary. However, we fail to emphasise how fundamental it is that the author is acknowledged for their ideas. Without works such as Plath, Angelou, Orwell to Atwood, we may not even be exposed to the array of literature that we have the luxury of exposure to today, and these writers have managed to have the astute eye to select aspects of the world around them and turn them into something quite magical. Explaining the underworld of Gilead to students is quite remarkable for a teacher, and it is only just that we take a moment to tip our hat to Atwood for creating such a stark, harrowing landscape of a world that in some respects, chimes with the reality of some country’s current political climate. Intertextuality is alive and kicking, but to create something new, we must thank the ones that came before us to spark the ideas in the first place.
The introduction of referencing and plagiarism at Higher Education institutes is a rather novel task to which students have very little experience or knowledge of doing so. At university, I was taught how to reference and the applicable systems to use, but it was merely assumed that I knew why it was important to signpost writers and research. At GCSE, we introduce key critical theory and apply it to the text in question, and this is a great way to start the introduction process for students to understand what it means to consider the works of others when applying their own ideas. 700,000 students in the UK made applications to attend universities last year, and we do have a certain obligation to prepare them not only with taught content, but the high regard that correct referencing will have to ensure that their work is ethical, and well received by tutors.
The most fundamental consideration, is the fact that students need to understand the gravity to using the words of others. Whilst there is a place to debate who coins an original thought, or curates an idea before anyone else, but the fact remains that there are consequences, both legal and financial to holding up the words of others as your own. The CLA have a range of tools and services to help the educational sector to make the correct choices around copying to ensure that copyright law is adhered to, and Mark could be teaching one day.
Whilst Mark made an impressive anecdote, he also taught me a valuable lesson about how we are not just teaching students content, but ultimately, the ability to form their own ideas but also to develop respect and a sense of critical acknowledgment for the great writers that inspire them.
About the Author
Kat Howard is More Able Coordinator and a teacher of English at Brockington College in South Leicestershire. In addition to her school role, Kat is Founder of Litdrive, a resource and CPD provision for English teachers, providing national and regional CPD opportunities to members. She is also the East Midlands Representative for the MTPT Project, a CPD provision to support teachers on parental leave with CPD. You can find her on Twitter @saysmiss, and she also blogs at www.saysmiss.wordpress.com.