My first year teaching high school English, I had a student in my sophomore honors class whom I’ll call Alex. Alex was the first kid I caught plagiarizing. The assignment was an RFTS–Reading from the Silence–an opportunity for kids to write an original anything: poetry, fiction, personal essays, song lyrics. I’d always write an RFTS too, usually a not-inappropriately-personal essay, some very terrible bits of fiction, an op-ed piece about the Oklahoma City bombing, a not-too-revealing poem inspired by the heartache of being dumped two times by one beau.
Each Friday, part of the class was set aside to share our RFTS writing. We’d turn the lights low and sit in silence until the first brave soul started reading his or her piece. Reading from the silence.
That was in Skokie, Illinois in the mid-nineties. At twenty-two years old, I was as green as could be. Even today I want to write apology letters to my guinea pig students in those early years of teaching.
But RFTS was, by most accounts, a big hit. Some liked the freedom of writing whatever moved them. Others liked to space out in a dimly-lit classroom. Still others liked that it was easy points; if the student wrote something original and thoughtful and legible, he earned 10/10. Some kids wrote a fifteen-page RFTS; some kids wrote a single, angst-filled sonnet about questioning authority or defying the school dress code. Some kids shared their work every week; some kids never shared.
My student, Alex, was not one who often shared during RFTS. He wrote analytical essays that felt like algebraic equations. He didn’t seem to love literature. He was a nice kid, a little nervous, but also kind, conscientious and intelligent. On his report card, I might have said the following: Alex completes daily assignments in a timely manner. Alex is an active participant in small and/or large group discussion. Alex communicates effectively. (1)
Alex also turned in an “original” RFTS that was the word-for-word lyrics of a James Taylor song. When I confronted him, he claimed innocence. Several times. Ah, and when the student doth protest too much, methinks there’s a confession to be made. (2) [Read more…]