Classroom War Stories: Challenges and Successes

Three weeks ago, I began a series of classes on American-style research papers for one of my classes–a class mainly comprised of students who plan to attend university in the United States. We devoted whole classes on the basics: what research papers are, why we write them, how to choose a topic and brainstorm, which sources are credible and which aren’t, and so on. Knowing from previous experience that it may be a problem, I devoted an entire class period to MLA citations. We covered what is and what isn’t plagiarism, how to write a Works Cited page and how to use parenthetical citations. As my favorite professor from college did each time I took a course with him, I required that the whole class take an online quiz about plagiarism. The quiz gave examples and asked the test taker to decide if they required citation or not.

I also told the class that I would be running this project in an American style, and would therefore 1) give any papers exhibiting cheating or plagiarism a zero, and 2) not accept a single late paper.

At this part in the post, I could rant for way longer than what you want to read. I also don’t wish to offend in the slightest. But I will say the following. These students had three weeks to write three double-spaced pages. Not only did a third of the class receive a zero for not turning it in, but every single paper I have graded thus far has included plagiarized material. It’s easy to spot: all you have to do is recognize that a sentence doesn’t sound like the student in question, and put it into Google in quotation marks. The source pops right up.

I am bitterly disappointed, and at this point, I’m unsure of how to proceed from a teacher-ethics standpoint. In class tomorrow, I’m planning to ask the students what they think is fair. It may be that they won’t take this question seriously, and respond with what they want to see happen, in which case I’ll disregard their answers and decide on my own. Instead, I hope they will appreciate being treated like adults, and that we’ll be able to come to some sort of fair conclusion together.


Today, I was asked to work with a student who is petrified for the speaking portion of the English certification exam she will take in May. She’s very intelligent, but you can see the exact moments where self-doubt creeps into her answers, and if she doesn’t learn to conquer it this problem could affect her marks on the test.

The part she’s most nervous for is the section of the speaking exam where the test-taker must speak for two full minutes on their own, on a specific question dealing with a general issue (health care, environmental issues, and so on). This may not seem like a long time, but when you’re speaking on your own in a foreign language, two full minutes is an eternity.

We sat down to begin, and her nervousness was palpable.

Thinking quickly, I began by asking her what her favorite animal was.

She looked at me suspiciously. Finally, she replied, “Well… I like owls.”

“OK,” I said, “Tell me why you like them.” When she began speaking, I started the stopwatch on my cell phone. The time read 1.20 when she was done. I showed her the time and she winced.

I smiled and said, “Now, I want you to make up  a story about an owl. The first sentence is… ‘The baby owl was very nervous about learning to fly.'”

The look she gave me was the look you’d give someone if they asked you to stand up in the middle of the #10 bus (the one that runs along the busiest street in Thessaloniki) and sing an opera. I just kept smiling.

Finally, she began. Once she got over her misgivings about it, she made up a lovely little story involving a baby owl and its father. I timed her, and it was about 1.40.

When she was done, I told her to tell the story again, but this time, she should try to work some sort of environmental issue into the story.

“…Can the owl talk?” she asked shyly.

I said that was fine. This story was much more tragic than the first, and involved the baby owl falling to its death because it didn’t have enough trees to practice in. At the end, the owl’s brother flew to the humans and “lectured” them about why they shouldn’t cut down trees. This time she spoke for a full 2.05.

After a brief celebration, we moved on. I described the dilemma of the Spotted Owl in the States: that it, of course, needs habitat, but that humans are currently dependent on logging. I asked her to comment on the situation, and again, she spoke for a full two minutes.

By the time we finished for the day, she spoke for 2.30 on an official practice test prompt. She squealed with delight, thanked me with a huge grin on her face, and bounced off down the hall, purple scrunchie bobbing up and down as she went.


There you have it. I’ve run the teaching gamut today. Disillusionment, disappointment, pride and satisfaction, all in a single day. I just found out a few days ago that I got a teaching assistantship for graduate school next year, and I know that I’ll feel all these things again and again, as long as I continue my teaching career. It’s all in a day’s work on the battlefield.

Cheers (to teachers all over the world!),



About wrap me in phyllo dough

travel addict. greece-obsessed. grad student. bottomless pit.
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7 Responses to Classroom War Stories: Challenges and Successes

  1. David Glidden says:

    I am teaching a course called Care of the Soul at UC Riverside. In a paper I assigned on Montaigne three weeks before it was due, a third of the class did not turn their papers in on time and had their papers docked one-letter grade for each day late. Why? Because they kept postponing doing the required reading for the paper and found out at the last minute they could not fudge it on the web. So, they learned a valuable lesson about effort and responsibility.

    Most American universities use a computer program (“Safe Assign”) to scan for plagiarism. It is highly effective in catching cheating. And on several campuses plagiarists are now simply expelled. There are too many students these days for too few places. So, if you cheat, you go home, without a degree. Your students need to know this, so that at least they can remember it after they get expelled, God forbid!

    Students also need to know this: in most industrialized nations the workplace is unforgiving of mistakes.

  2. Sarah says:

    Oh Kate, the sorrow and joy that surrounds each teaching moment! I am so glad that you are able to experience this and all these lessons will certainly help you on your TA adventures. I hope that your students rise to the occasion to take responsibility for their actions. I look forward to hearing how it turns out.


  3. Jessica says:

    Kate, I totally dig your teaching stories. They’re amazing and heartwarming and they make me obscenely proud of you for the grace and creativity you’re showing your students.

    Keep it up, hot stuff.

    • k8peterson says:

      Ms. Bagley, I’m really touched by your kind words. Thanks for reading, and for the encouragement. There will be many, many more war stories (good and bad, I’m sure) over the next four months, and writing about them is half the fun!

  4. Ritchie Boyd says:

    K8, Even given the amount that I work with edumacators every day, and at the risk of sounding sappy, that is an incredibly powerful story you relate about the english certification. To be able to approach the problem like that on the fly is awesome. Though I’d like to think I could maintain that level of poise, truth be told I’d probably have had steam coming out of my ears. Have a Greek beer on me!

    • k8peterson says:

      Thanks Ritchie! Honestly, I feel the benefits of all that improv every single day in class. And I WILL have a beer in celebration, but does it have to be a Greek one? I’ve been transformed to a shameless, chronic Hellenophile, but I will never, ever like that blasphemy to the sacred art of beer that is Mythos… (the only Greek beer you can find at the majority of restaurants).

  5. Pingback: 10 Ways to Live Like You’re Traveling | wrap me in phyllo dough

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