by Debbie Sabin
Professional plagiarism has become such a common headline that each new story now seems a clichéd tale of an ambitious writer gone to the dark side. Yet, last year’s case of the young Indian American writer Kaavya Viswanathan’s fall from publishing grace offered a unique look into a writing world that values packaging over perspective. It may also shed some light on what our own students value.
It was easy to be skeptical of Kaavya Viswanathan’s claim that she unconsciously mimicked passages from other books when she was writing How Opal Mehta Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got A Life. Websites and newspapers meticulously documented so many passages of such striking similarity, prompting readers to conclude that, of course, Viswanathan knew she was stealing someone else’s material.
Yet, it was also easy to retain some sympathy for this teenager. Profiles of her precocious success and subsequent infamy underscored the early pressure she was under to produce not the piece of writing that she had originally envisioned (it was darker, she said) but a piece of writing that others deemed more valuable. Rather than help this 17-year-old develop her own story, her “packagers” asked her to shape the story of a young girl being obsessively groomed for an Ivy League admittance to be more “like” the type of chick-lit book that publishers wanted to buy. Was it surprising then, that the teenaged Viswanathan copied, consciously or unconsciously, from these same types of chick-lit books? The lingering moral of this plagiarism tale may be that—at some level—she simply did what her packagers had asked for.
So what does this story say about how the young writers in our classrooms value the integrity of their own ideas? As a high school English teacher, I caught many students plagiarizing (and probably didn’t catch numerous others) and stopped being surprised when parents were primarily concerned with whether the incident would appear on the student’s file. I tutored a boy attending a well-known school whose mother offered a “new conclusion” that she had written to be used in the boy’s senior English paper because it better reflected what the assignment asked for. There are teachers who have handed out the exact same paper assignment on Huck Finn for at least 15 years and no longer expect—or even ask—to see a fresh perspective on the question.
Have those of us involved in the business of educating children also at times taken on the role of “packagers,” focused too exclusively on a particular product over the students’ own ideas? This is the message many of our kids appeared to have absorbed. From remedial classes to honors AP English, too many of our students—perhaps like Kaavya Viswanathan—subscribe to an adage of “who cares whose idea it is as long as it is what ‘they’ (teacher, parent, test-reader, college admission officer) want.”
One could argue that there is little time to worry about developing students’ unique voices in this climate of high stakes testing and even higher stakes college admissions. And perhaps test preparation has stolen time from those free-ranging class discussions that pushed, prodded, and refined how I thought as a student. But asking kids to engage with their own ideas should be an integral part of teaching—even teaching that is directed towards a high-stakes evaluation.
I have worked with teachers at the Boston Renaissance Charter School—an urban school necessarily concerned with the skills’ needs of many of its students. These BRCS teachers establish the expectation that students will always write from their unique perspectives. This standard of originality makes it very clear that the students better learn the “hard” skills that they need to present their ideas clearly and powerfully. The result: writing scores at Boston Renaissance have risen even as (perhaps because) students learn that their own voices matter.
When my son was in elementary school, he was asked to write about what he would do if he successfully climbed Mount Everest and was standing on top of the tallest mountain in the world. “I would spit,” was the basic premise of his response. The teacher put an “X” next to his answer; “You would plant a flag,” was the teacher’s comment. Maybe the world does want another photo of an exhausted climber sticking a flag in the snow. But that’s because they haven’t seen my son spit!
Viswanathan’s mentors missed the opportunity to help this talented girl figure out what she really had to say. Too bad. She might even have had something new to say about Huck Finn.
Debbie Sabin is a Senior Program Manager for The Writers’ Express, a non-profit organization that designs literacy curriculum and delivers professional development for grades 3–12.