Plagiarism is defined as “an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author” by dictionary.com. Today, it’s the main topic of headlines around the country after Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention last night included a passage that is very similar to a passage from Michelle Obama’s speech from the 2008 Democratic National Convention.
This isn’t about politics, it’s about plagiarism. I’m always a fan of using headlines to start conversations with kids, and this is a great opportunity to talk about plagiarism with your kids.
To start, have them check out the two speeches at issue today. In this article, CNN placed the speeches side by side, offering a clear visual of the similarities:
Then ask you kids how would they feel if they had written the words that someone else used without saying where they got them? Kids may think “borrowing” a few sentences is okay, or it’s okay as long as it’s small part of a big speech, but plagiarism is not okay. It’s likely Melania Trump did not write her speech, and Michelle Obama also had a speech writer. The point is that one writer used another writer’s words without proper credit.
It’s certainly not the first time that it has happened, and it won’t be the last, but it is a teachable moment to explain that plagiarism is a form of cheating, and it’s wrong.
I love how KidsHealth explains it: “The word plagiarism comes from a Latin word for kidnapping. . . . plagiarism is stealing a person’s ideas or writing. You wouldn’t take someone’s lunch money or bike, right? Well, someone’s words and thoughts are personal property, too.”
Kids need to know how to give credit for words and ideas that aren’t theirs.
What can parents do?
Be on the lookout for people who give appropriate citations and point them out to your kids. I’ve written about how Hamilton is huge in our house and my daughter had the lyrics out yesterday. At the end of the lyrics, there is a page of explanation and citations. For example, it says, “‘My Shot’ contains elements of ‘Shook Ones Pt II'” and credits the writers and publishers.
Another option is looking up other incidents of plagiarism, including that when Joe Biden plagiarized a speech during the Presidential primaries in 1987 it led to him withdrawing from the race. (You can find more on that and other politicians who plagiarized here, and more plagiarism scandals here.)
Just talk about it. Many kids say that they didn’t know it was wrong to cut and paste from the internet, so make sure your kid hears from you that it’s not okay. Tell them that it’s part of being honest, and being fair to other people who came up with ideas and words.
There are so many easy ways and tools to help kids cite sources and create bibliographies. (My child is still baffled that we had to do our own bibliographies back in the day rather than typing sources in and clicking a button that formats, alphabetizes, etc. for them.) Be sure to have your kids ask their teacher what their policies and favorite tools are at the beginning of the year, and check in with them to see what their language arts or English teacher says on the topic.
Resources for talking about plagiarism with kids
You can never go wrong following the advice in this piece: “If you’re not sure whether a source should be cited, include it just in case.”
This includes several helpful steps and offers information about paraphrasing, including this: “Changing a few words of the original sentences does NOT make your writing a legitimate paraphrase. You must change both the words and the sentence structure of the original, without changing the content. Also, you should keep in mind that paraphrased passages still require citation because the ideas came from another source, even though you are putting them in your own words.”
This helps kids understand what plagiarism is, but also reassures kids, saying, “All this shouldn’t make you nervous to use websites, books, and other sources. It’s great that you can get information from experts on stuff you don’t know much about. You just have to make sure to show where the information came from. If you do that, you’re in the clear.”
Check out this video on YouTube “Copyright & Plagiarism for Kids” by Shannon Bussell that is intended for elementary school students but applicable to all ages (including adult speech writers).
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