I was recently handed a nifty book called How to Steal Creatively . It is not a handbook for would-be plagiarizers. Rather, it is a book for people wanting to grow ideas and creations from things they encounter. On the cover are some pithy quotations for writers and other creative types, one of which is “Write the book you want to read.” Even though I had seen that advice before, this time it really resonated with me. I decided I should write the article I want to read … and this is it! The subject is how to combat plagiarism through creative assignments. I had ruled out this topic in the past because I know there are other articles that treat this. But, by golly, I want to write one too. I hope I can impart some ideas coming from my own experience. I also want to recognize a very special professor who introduced me to this concept during my undergrad days at Baylor University a very long time ago. So professor Clement Goode, this one’s for you!
I suspect that anybody who had Goode for English class remembers the experience well. He was ahead of his time with his teaching methods, bringing in lots of experiences such as group assignments and skits instead of the standard sage on the stage lectures. Even more memorable, though, were his tests. The first time I showed up for an exam, trusty blue book and pens in hand, I was due for a shock. Instead of being served up a list of discussion questions with maybe a few short-answer questions thrown in, I was confronted with a scenario that went something like this:
Pretend you are attending a medieval feast. All the characters from the works we have covered are at the celebration. Answer questions in a manner that reflects your thorough understanding of the works.
• Who would sit above the salt at the long table (positions of rank and privilege) and who would sit below, and why?
• What would these characters or authors have to say to one another? What would they have in common and what would be their differences? • Wife of Bath and Beowulf’s mother • Sir Gawain and Robin Hood • Shakespeare and Chaucer • The Green Knight and Chaucer’s Knight
• As the evening wears on, one character gets angry and leaves in a huff. Who would this be and why?
• Finally, a huge ruckus is caused by the unexpected arrival of one more character. Who is the latecomer? Describe the scene, the participants, and how things played out.
I can remember being totally taken aback and pretty much frozen in my desk upon reading the instructions. Everybody in the room had similar reactions. Goode reassured us that there were no “right” or “wrong” answers as long as we justified our responses with reasons based on our thorough understanding of the works covered. I was someone who usually could tell how I had done on a test, and I loved the feeling that came when walking away thinking I had “aced” an exam. This time I had no idea how I had done, but I was rewarded with a pretty good grade. After that experience, I knew to expect the unexpected with Goode’s tests.
When I moved on to the classroom as a junior high and high school English teacher, I adopted the concepts of Goode’s practices. Much of my teaching was junior high reading, and I gave “party” tests to my young charges. Their reaction upon getting that first test was similar to mine, and I would have kid after kid come up to my desk and ask, “Is this right?” or “Is this what you wanted?” I gave them the same reassurances that Goode gave to my classes, that if they supported their answers with knowledge of the stories and characters, they could do no wrong. I like to think that these students finished the year as better readers and also more creative thinkers.
Another huge advantage of creating scenarios such as the party test is that they preclude cheating. There’s no way two people will independently come up with the same responses. I also started constructing other assignments in similar terms as well as tests. This approach served me well in my classroom teacher days. As a junior high librarian, I tried to encourage teachers to move away from “Write a report” assignments to expecting more creative responses.
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