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A Life Lesson: Don’t Cheat Yourself. Read the Whole Book.

March 31, 2019

I just finished grading this semester’s major essay for my senior English classes.

My goal was to have each student read a book– cover to cover– and write a paper on that book.

Sound simple?

Not so much.

We are in an age in which the technology at our fingertips makes cheating ourselves out of an education marvelously easy:

Read the summary. Copy and paste someone else’s words and pass them off as your own. Rearrange them a bit if you like. Or pay for an online subscription to browse prewritten papers, and choose one to pass off as your own. Or if you’re a more sophisticated cheater with some cash in your pockets, pay someone you’ve never met to write your paper for you. Just send the ghostwriter a copy of your assignment and a credit card number and consider it done.

I am pleased to note that of the 118 essays I collected and graded over the past three weeks, only three evidenced academic dishonesty. However, this chiefly-positive result is tied to some notable, proactive strategizing to curb such cheating. For example, I compose writing prompts that are not readily answered by using summary websites or prefab papers for purchase. Too, I require my students to pass an interview with me in which we discuss the book that the student is supposed to have read. Finally, students must also be able to hold a conversation with me about their own paper, with the understanding communicated upon issuance of the assignment that students must pass their book and paper interviews in order to receive credit for their papers.

Passing these interviews is only difficult for those who have not read the full book and/or not authored their own papers.

When I explain my system– the efforts I undertake to help assure that students read entire books and write their own essays on those books– some friends and colleagues respond, “But that is so much work on you.” Yes, it is extra work for me, but it is also investment; word is getting out about how I conduct my major essay assignment, that I mean business, and each semester, more students are taking me seriously and doing what is truly good for them: reading an entire book and writing their own essay on that book.

In other words, students are more easily acquiescing to investing in their own learning, not just for college, but for life.

Learning should be lifelong, and excellence does not cut corners. Important lessons.

And yet, one can certainly make a buck off of corner-cutting.

Only minutes ago, I saw a commercial for Blinkist, a Berlin-based site that advertises reducing nonfiction books into 10- to 21-minute “reads.” The site advertises, “Fit reading into your life.” Then it reduces complex books into spoon-sized “key takeaways.”

Ironically, it could take longer to read– truly read, as in read and absorb– the Blinkist Magazine article, “Ideas Matter: Get Up to Speed on the World’s Best Nonfiction Books,” than it does to Blinkist-fast read some of the suggested titles themselves.

I remember Reader’s Digest Condensed Books, launched by Reader’s Digest Magazine in 1950, and no longer published (Reader’s Digest tried to perform a makeover on the series in 2015, but has since been discontinued.) The condensed books were shortened, yes, but not to a 10- to 21-minute read.

Too, Reader’s Digest Condensed Books tended to be works of fiction, and Blinkist is a nonfiction site.

However, with the profound amount of information readily available on the internet, and with much of America’s attention glued to electronic devices, reducing the time, energy, and intellectual commitment of reading a book to a “blink” might just be a suitable, 21st-century angle for making a fast-read buck.

You see, you don’t have to bother subjecting yourself to a complete book (or even a something so lengthy as a Reader’s Digest Condensed Books version). Blinkist hires readers to read complete nonfiction books and “distill” these books “into short Blinks” shorter than sitcom episodes.

The message?

Life is too fast for people to put forth the effort to read an entire work, to experience the pondering, processing, absorbing, and suspense, savoring, and enjoyment of the full read for themselves, so let’s just get to the point, store away (at best) a few, superficial talking points to toss about in moments when one wants to sound deep without having bothered to intellectually invest in depth.

There will always be a market in corner-cutting. I’m not sure of the point of paying Blinkist a monthly or yearly fee just to regularly read/hear 15-minutes’ worth of distilled nonfiction books unless it is to promote the image of being well read.

Excellence allows for no corner-cutting, and quality does not happen in a Blink.

Read the whole book. (And write your own paper.)

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Image from @book_tribe

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Schneider is a southern Louisiana native, career teacher, trained researcher, and author of two other books: A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who In the Implosion of American Public Education and Common Core Dilemma: Who Owns Our Schools?. You should buy these books. They’re great. No, really.

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17 Comments
  1. Your students should appreciate how fortunate they are to have a teacher who cares enough to invest so much time and attention into reading their work – every word – and then providing commentary on the grade rather than just THE GRADE.

    It’s a rare teacher who does that, and understandably considering the weight that one test holds, the lousy curriculum that the district/state provides and the large class sizes many teachers have.

    It’s too bad those few students who cheat didn’t have a teacher like you earlier on as I’m betting they have not only learned a lesson but have learned the value of mutual respect.

  2. You’re diligence is commendable. When I was a senior in high school during the 1970-71 school year we had to read five novels by a single English author and write a 25 page term paper discussing them in great detail. Our teacher correctly assumed that we would just do the work ourselves. We had no Internet then, of course, so maybe we would have cheated if we had? I honestly doubt it.

    I know math teachers who routinely make up two versions of their tests to give to alternate rows in class. Couple this with the state of our society at large with the latest college admissions scandal (http://eduissues.com/2019/03/31/how-the-college-admissions-scandal-was-uncovered) and it is a very sad commentary on our country.

  3. melchi34 permalink

    That is indeed a productive way to minimize cheating. It also fosters student teacher communication thus permitting you to make further assessments of the students you teach.
    Cheating has become an activity which many of our young have accepted without any attempt to evaluate. There is so much questionable activities by the adults in the society that often they do not have many good examples to follow.
    What you show though, is that teaching is much more than the content material of your subject. Students will learn, unconsciously, that there are people who believe that cheating is wrong, who make an effort to lessen it. Some of them will carry it with them for life. You are teaching character also.

  4. mercat45 permalink

    Amen, sister. And thank you.

  5. As someone who recently earned certification to teach English after 25 years of teaching history, psychology and law, I still haven’t fully come to grips with the deeply-embedded belief that so many other English teachers have that literacy is first and foremost about reading books, by which they almost always mean novels. There’s no mention of the book’s title here, and I think it’s a deliberate omission. I’m willing to bet that it was a novel.

    It’s quite possible for well-educated person, especially now, to have little to no familiarity with the canon that so many high school English teachers are so busy foisting upon their students. Well-written novels may have much to teach us, but remember that there was a time when they were spurned by the well-educated. Remember, too, that much of what they have to teach us can be learned reading other material.

    This notion that if some experience is so extraordinary to some teacher or another that every student should have it is pernicious. You can teach people about music without making them perform (or even listen to) the late symphonies of Beethoven. Teaching Beethoven would well worth doing, too, but there isn’t an entire profession devoted to making every student do it. I’m often shocked by the musical illiteracy of most Americans. Most public schools don’t try to teach the basics of musical notation, musical form or musical style, however, so it’s no surprise. Somehow, symphonies keep limping along — with unionized performers, no less!

    High school English curricula all over the nation emphasize learning about novels, as they have for over a century, so you’d think they’d have made a dent in students’ reluctance to read them, but they haven’t. I think that it’s not just the students who are failing to learn in this instance, it’s their teachers and the educational establishment. Literacy is power, surely. But reading novels (or poetry, or drama) is a pastime no more sublime than any number of others that schools don’t teach. Maybe we should get over this fetish about books and move on.

    • Many of my students want to skip reading anything longer than a tweet. Reading develops vocabulary and critical thought.

      I do use novels for my paper and nonfiction for my research presentations.

      Be in touch again after you assign a paper to students and confront massive academic dishonesty. Tell me how you chose to respond.

      • I’ve assigned many papers to students and confronted massive academic dishonesty many times — as a history teacher and psychology teacher over the last 25 years. I use Turnitin now, which is a very useful tool for catching and deterring plagiarism, among other things.

        The last time I confronted a student about plagiarism, he was convinced he’d done nothing wrong, even though over 50% of the material was verbatim from one source. He remained convinced even when I showed him, because he was sure of his intentions. He never intended to plagiarize. I responded as tactfully as I could, since he was very defensive. I remember one occasion when a parent defended her son quite enthusiastically for plagiarizing; she thought it was a sign of his ability to research.

        I’m not criticizing anyone for assigning challenging readings or longer papers — I do both. My students certainly need to be challenged to do the sustained work of reading, too.

    • LisaM permalink

      WOW!!! I am shocked that after being a teacher for 25 years, that you would have such a stunted view of reading novels and works of literature. Since you taught History, Psychology and Law, I will give you an example of a very good novel that should be read in every middle or high school, To Kill a Mockingbird. In that novel there is history to be learned, there is reference to law and it’s unfair practice at the time, and there is the psychology of mob rule and racism. Many children don’t like to read novels, but I can guarantee that there are aspects of novels that will stick with children to help shape them into better human beings. I am guessing that you love the Common Core and it’s push to read more “informational text”? Let me tell you from having 2 in high school, that both of my children would rather read a novel (even ones they don’t like) than the informational text that is foisted upon them daily. And let me also add that as the reading of literature in schools has decreased, the number of racist and violent incidents committed in our schools has increased….correlation/causation, I don’t know……but it is happening. Please do our children a favor and walk away from the front of the classroom.

      • Splendid Anomaly permalink

        You’re pretty quick to judge on little evidence, aren’t you? I think if I walked away from the front of the classroom, it would only be to the back to help out a student. If I walked away from teaching, there would be a great many parents, and colleagues who would think it a shameful loss.

        I said: “It’s quite possible for a well-educated person, especially now, to have little to no familiarity with the canon that so many high school English teachers are so busy foisting upon their students.”

        That’s not really a “stunted view,” I think. More of an accurate observation. Many teachers forget that literature is meant, among other things, to be entertainment. A great deal of the entertainment value of a piece of literature is shed over time, because much of the context is lost as the society that the literature was intended for slips more and more into the past. Huckleberry Finn is well worth reading, but it’s not for everyone.

        I don’t think that studying novels is bad for students. I’ve assigned novels, too. I became a history teacher partly because I grew up reading historical fiction — Mary Renault, mainly — as well as Shakespeare, detective novels, science fiction, Tolkien, Hemingway…it’s a long list. Just because English teachers love novels and reading and writing are valuable skills doesn’t mean that reading novels and writing about them is necessary for everyone. Music teachers love Beethoven, Bach, Ellington and Gershwin, and music is just as important as literature. Yet schools don’t assign years of music appreciation classes that include Renaissance and Baroque music. History and biography are much older forms of literature than the novel, yet we don’t make students read entire works of non-fiction for their literary value, which I think is a shame. Still, there is only so much time, after all.

        People –teachers especially – have been bemoaning the loss of some golden age when people read books for a long while now. But like most golden ages, the one where students read entire books and didn’t plagiarize never really existed.

    • But you seem to assume that novels do not qualify as “challenging readings,” and you did accuse me of “deliberate omission” in not using the word, “novel,” in my post, which was rude and wrong.

  6. Lance Hill permalink

    You’re a great teacher; one I would have avoided at every turn in high school and one I would have made my kids take when they were in school.

  7. Splendid Anomaly: Novels, and their parent, epic, should be the foundation of every person’s education because “story” is the root concept of ALL thought in every discipline. In some sense, even every scientific fact is story, every history is story, every aspect of psychology is story, and all laws and trials under them are story. I must agree with Mercedes on this one. Are you not perhaps playing devil’s advocate?

  8. Ken Watanabe permalink

    I always have respect for teachers who teach literature, philosophy, linguistics, law, history, sociology, psychology, etc. Seeing someone who claims solid teaching experience in the core of humanities take swipe at novels/literature is so odd that it really resonates with callous behavior of some undergrad business major (notorious for snobbishness, especially those with frat boy/girl mentality. Seen in required core curriculum).

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