It’s called plagiarism my friends, not inspiration.

When I read my colleague Craig Polzen’s blog post on copyright I was interested to hear how his favourite track, Paul’s Boutique by the Beastie Boys was created by the mixing of over 100 different artists. Wow I thought, that’s insane! You would have thought that by the time we reached adulthood, we would have understood the fact that ‘copying’ someone’s idea and taking it as our own, was actually not only not cool, but wrong! Apparently not if you are familiar with the controversy surrounding the 2013 hit ‘Blurred Lines’ by Robin Thicke and Pharrrell. If top of their game musicians who are today’s role models for many of our younger generation are blatantly ignoring copyright laws, as educators we are surely obligated to highlight these flaws and introduce the ‘smart’ choice to our young learners so   they can avoid similar paths.

It’s a nonfiction unit and my grade 2 students were researching information on an animal of their choice. We were working on text features and summarizations skills. I often found myself saying, “Don’t forget, write it in your own words.” I would look over at the text they were actually working from, then remind myself that this might be a tricky task – the page had only 2 – 4 sentences about the body parts of a leopard. I am currently working with Grade 5 students, and of course whilst the reading and writing skills have since matured, the skill of ‘writing in your own words’ is still a challenging one for them to learn.


 Cartoon – Mary Alice Osborne

Kids working on research projects have always copied chunks from books. When will we get to the point as educators when addressing this is no longer necessary? Speaking to some of my high school colleagues – it seems never! It’s a hard skill to learn, ‘to be true to’ and apparently, one that many students struggle to really grasp and value the importance of, even in their final year when writing internal assessments and essays. Students have deadlines to meet, so let’s just copy, paste and get this done. Teachers in my high school use the website to help combat plagarisum issues. It is used across all subject levels and grade levels and supports academic integrity.

According to their website, unoriginal work decreases by 33 % and students are encouraged to think more critically. Yet this is not just an issue for high school, copying directly from the textbook seems to be coming a thing of the past even for some of our elementary students. Today students of all ages are researching more and more online and the copy paste issue is becoming larger now that it is no longer contained to some paper on a teacher’s desk. The word plagiarism is starting to be used at a very young age, mainly by accident but for sure mostly by misinformation or rather no information!

Whilst the word cheating seems a little harsh a label for an 8 year old, students are effectively doing just that! In our school, we ask students from Grade 3 – 5 to have their own personal blogs, yet we currently do not address copyright issues in context authentically in our curriculum. They have no knowledge or understanding of what plagiarism is. The Elementary’s Guide to Plagiarism defines plagiarism when someone takes another person’s thoughts or ideas and acts like they are their own. The idea of teaching plagiarism to elementary students indeed seems a little daunting to say the least but if we wish them to understand the idea of digital citizenship, this is an aspect we need to address. When researching I discovered there are some great tools out there, already developed, that look to be engaging and appropriate. gives a great article in kid friendly language that any elementary teacher would be able to get their head around and open up a discussion, starting with a perfect example of a kid plagarising from a book. The website jointhecteam gives several hands on copyright learning projects covering KG1 – Gr 5. They state that their activities are “designed to raise copyright awareness and build respect for intellectual property.” This lesson provides a short teacher’s guide, a class presentation and follow-up suggestions. The find of the tech century for me is the website Common Sense Education, due to their teacher/student explanations. It has a mini unit for Grades 3 -4, titled Whose Is It Anyway. It teaches students to recognise plagiarism, understand the consequences and introduces proper ways to cite people’s words and ideas
plagiarism-brainpop-300x226from the internet. The elementary Brainpop has an
informative video on plagiarism with additional quizzes and related activities. There is stuff out there,  and I think it’s just a taster that we need to give our students at this early age. A short video from Brocklibrary gives just enough of this learning to hit the message home. Understanding, detecting and being aware of the laws and consequences are messages that can be clearly received by students. We don’t want to overload our young learners with facts and a fear of posting on the web. We want to encourage the continued sharing of thoughts, ideas and creativity. By modeling, our young learners will start to hear these words, make smart choices, and follow best practise.
These lessons on paraphrasing, how to use quotes in words, how to recognise the difference between creating and ‘stealing’ ideas, will help our students and their writing across all areas of the curriculum. We are obliged to start helping students find strategies early on to avoid plagiarism issues in our lessons. It seems crazy to me not to start taking advantage of these tools that will help me to reach out and inform my students better. 

PS – and thanks to Deviant Art who were the inspiration for my blog title!

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6 Responses to It’s called plagiarism my friends, not inspiration.

  1. Cheryl,

    I think back to my younger years when I was learning how to “research”. I remember the teacher being so crazy about what we wrote and it NOT being an exact replica of what I just read, and I just needed to find something that she surely would not investigate. In other words, I was guilty as sin with plagiarism! I am in no way trying to defend myself or explain my way out of it because it was wrong. So over time I did finally realize the teacher’s expectations (years later) and I find it disappointing that I was copying because I did not know what my teacher wanted. My goal was fully clear…to have the teacher be happy with whatever I wrote down while not having any clue of what precisely was expected of me.

    So I wanted to toss out some thoughts on why students may do this….or better put, why I did this. I was very weak with my reading and comprehension levels in elementary school. I only knew that I was expected to regurgitate a story or a historical fact without leaving any information out. So the best way to do this is to simply repeat every sentence one by one until it has all been copied. But while copying, I need to change the sentence around so it isn’t exactly the same.

    For me, what would have really helped is if my teachers would have wrote down all the key words that came up within the reading so that I could start to piece together the story or idea much better. Then retelling that sam story would be easy because i would only have to come up with my own explanation surrounding those key words. Another difficult thing for me, a person who is weak at reading comprehension, was trying to construct a sentence differently when sometimes it was potentially impossible with my vocabulary level. I mean really, how many ways can a person state that “Johnny lived in a red house with a white fence”, for example? This is where I would reach into my bag of tricks and state the facts in opposite order. And how can I really plagiarize if I am reciting facts of actual events. I must not distort the truth; therefore, I need to state the sentence exactly as I see it.

    I have no idea if this is insightful, but I know it took me way longer than it should have to learn how to competently take on this idea of not copying word for word when that was the only way to ensure you wrote down everything the teacher was expecting! I think I would have benefit very well by having the teacher do exercises with me (or the class) on how to recite the same information in a different way.

    But the plagiarism that happens in high school is beyond my understanding because even I, a person who was not savvy when it came to reading and writing, was able to figure it out by then! It is not excusable for it to happen at an elementary level, but I feel that it is at least understandable. This problem I imagine only gets exacerbated by us being educations at international schools where sometimes the students can be ESL learners.

    Thanks for the posting Cheryl! It was interesting for me to reflect on my struggles and recall how I learned. The rap video was too funny! Do you think that some students don’t understand (as I did) and as a result they may feel like there is no option left beyond handing in nothing or not completing the assignment? I wonder if there are other tools and techniques that would allow your students to get more comfortable rewriting information as a means of practicing research versus copying?

    • Hey James,
      This was a great read and I felt so bad for you as a student! I do agree with you on your view of high school students who plagiarize without worry – i feel it’s not even worth of a conversation with them – at this point, you should just KNOW not to do it! I am trying hard as a teacher to do a better job of teaching this skill to my students, it’s one of the more challenging ones especially when faced with a class as you point out, of many ES students as well as the usual different learning abilities that come with any group of students. I think this is a skill that needs to be revisited during the year, across different curriculum areas and it is vital the work given is differentiated from the very beginning. I will keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best! In the meantime I need to ensure my students are introduced the elements of digital citizenship, that will hopefully reinforce copyright and plagiarism issues further, and possibly make the students think twice before they copy straight from the text!

  2. Craig Polzen says:

    Hi Cheryl… love the title of this one!

    So, plagiarism versus inspiration? I think we are all inspired by the work of others. Musicians consistently cite “influences” from the past, visual artists get inspired by other works, writers create work based on the feedback of others.

    The problem lies in how people take their “inspiration” and evolve it into something new. This is the challenge when we ask students (and adults) to “be creative”. As humans, many of us struggle with reading or viewing others’ work and then being inspired by that to create our own unique vision. I think this is where the line is draw between “creativity” and “copying”. If the influence of another’s work is too prevalent, then we have not gone far enough. It is the true artists… the ones that really stand out… that are the ones who have truly mastered this skill.

    In music, there are a lot of grey areas. Many, many lawsuits have been filed against artists for “creating” a new song that sounds a little too much like something else. This could be the lyrics, the melody or even the specific pattern of notes (riff) that a single guitarist plays. This is just as true today as it was in the past. Interestingly, many musicians that are accused, will say that this was an unconscious influence. Somehow they enjoyed listening to a song and it “stuck” in their head… essentially, the plagiarism was unintentional. Does this make them a bad musician? No… but it does put them in some legal hot water.

    This is the state of hip hop around the time that I started listening to it. Essentially, the songs are created by taking existing records and mixing parts of songs together to create a new, combined sound. Sometimes the loops or riffs are very recognisable and sometimes not. Back in the 1980’s as hip hop groups rose in popularity, record labels started paying royalties to the artists that had been “sampled” in order to use their work. If you look at many older hip hop albums, you can find credits of the samples to see the original artists. Unfortunately, not all artists (or record labels) followed through with paying for every sample used… which is what landed the Beastie Boys in legal troubles over Paul’s Boutique. They simply had so many samples being mashed together that they dropped the ball on trying to pay for every single one. Is this legal? Of course not. Is it creative? Extremely.

    That’s the grey area. It’s not like they were influenced by the sounds of other musicians, but they actually used part of the specific beats, loops and riffs of the original musicians. It still happens today. But luckily the technology has moved on to a point that enables artists to create original works more easily… and the legalities of paying for samples has made the choice to be original much more cost effective for many artists.

    Thanks for the connection to my post.

    • Wow Craig, I learnt a lot more just from this comment! Do the music business know you exist – they need too! Your email has given me food for thought. The points you make early on about artists who master the skill of taking inspiration and making there own true creation was an interesting one. I hadn’t really thought about it from this point of view. Something I need to ponder on more…. I also think you could easily be making some extra money on all your musical knowledge – the musicians who are mixing old with the new should maybe give you a call to see if there his will be cost effective of not!

  3. Meeka White says:

    Hi Cheryl,

    I love the title of your post because it really rings true for ourselves and our students. And thinking about your though/question, “Kids working on research projects have always copied chunks from books. When will we get to the point as educators when addressing this is no longer necessary? ” I am thinking that it will happen but it takes a long time. As you allude to your HS colleagues, and I think back to all the time I taught in HS, students are more comfortable copying word for word because they don’t necessarily read what they are writing, they just write. Our research files for our History Classes’ projects always asked students to paraphrase and even the Grade 12 had difficulty with that because when they are learning something new they feel the need to write it word for word so they don’t omit something. I wonder if adults are adept at this skill?

    I do understand the challenges of teaching students in ES about plaigarism and copyright. Since so much of their work depends upon the internet, youtube, online articles etc. the lines do become blurry. However, I think that as long as ES students become aware of giving credit to someone who did the work before them, the person or institution who did the research or made the video, then we are doing our due diligence and teaching them that someone’s work needs to be acknowledge and valued. If it is a skill that is spiralled all the way from ES to HS then it will build a solid foundation for students to learn what to do and what not to do when it comes to citing, sourcing or referencing someone else’s work.

    • Hey Meeka,
      Thanks for taking the time to reply to my post! I agree with your final thoughts on the lines of trying to start an awareness of copyright issues early on with our Elementary years. I think that these moments need to be nothing too full on, but just small tasters on a regular basis when the moment is authentic within the curriculum. For the final project of course 2, my group have taken our current blogging unit, and renamed it ‘digital netiquette’. We have revamped it, and now have a collection of 18 lessons that cover teaching points such as plagiarism, copyright, privacy audience. We are hopeful that these foundational skills you refer too, will find there way to HS – fingers crossed!


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