“I thought you were a nice Librarian”

That’s what one student said as I wrapped up a surprise lesson on plagiarism. In truth, I try to be a pretty nice librarian and like all of us, I hold students accountable to high expectations. To perform research well and honestly, the students need to meet a particular set of high expectations regarding resources used, note-taking, writing thoughts in one’s own words, and creating a bibliography.

Of course, we must teach students the ins-and-outs of honest research to be able to hold them accountable to the standards.  One of my biggest challenges in the Lower School library program is teaching 4th and 5th grade students about plagiarism and giving them the tools they need to avoid it. The fairly dry topic can be confusing, challenging, and sometimes boring to teach and learn about, especially for Lower School students.   In addition, I find it to be a topic that alarms students and gets them worrying, as one student told me about “that time in first grade that I copied a paragraph of a Magic Tree House book for a report.”  It took awhile to convince this student, a 4th grader, that he would not be punished for his use of the text in 1st grade.

As a nice librarian (I hope!) who truly cares about student learning experiences, I made it my mission this year to add some sugar and spice to my first trimester lessons on plagiarism.

My first stop on this journey was a visit to the tried and true resources available from Common Sense Media. The technology teacher and I have been collaborating around the Common Sense Media curriculum for three years and are happy with the dynamic, attention getting, and thought provoking lessons they provide. The lesson geared towards Lower School students, Whose is it, Anyway? is one I’ve used in the past with success and decided to give it another go with 4th grade. The discussion based lesson introduces students to the idea of giving credit to others for use of their original work by analyzing times the students have created original work. This year I spread the topic over two class periods and gave students more time for class discussion. Slowing the subject down provided a much richer discussion than in previous years.

Since that lesson, the 4th graders have begun a research project on the Revolutionary War. With the discussion of plagiarism, copyright, and ownership of thoughts and ideas behind us, the importance of creating a bibliography became a natural next step for the students. I feel as though a foundation has been laid and that we will have rich conversations and practice around the subject in the future.

For 5th grade, I wanted something that would zap, zing, pop, and wow the students. We laid groundwork around the topics of copyright and plagiarism last year and I felt ready to blow their minds with a lesson that would get them thinking deeply about the choices they make in the research process. I wanted to turn their thinking caps up to eleven.

To inspire myself, I pored over the Common Sense Media materials and searched the Internet for ideas. When I found the video posted by Bob Sprankle called “What Does Plagiarism Look Like?”, I knew that my search was over. Once you watch it, you will know what I mean.

Energized by Mr. Sprankle’s unique approach and with the help two wonderful colleagues, I staged a scene where the students caught me in the act of plagiarizing.  I started class by telling them I had an essay due in one hour for my college class.   The students watched me find an article online, copy and paste it into a Word document, change the author and a few other words, save it in my files, and then email the essay to my professor.  In very subtle ways, my library assistant prompted some of the student conversation, drawing in the distracted (whispering with friends) students, while I repeatedly asked the students to “quiet down for just a few minutes while I finish an essay due this morning for my college class.” In all three 5th grade classes and at varying speeds, the students recognized what I was doing, warned me of the serious consequences, advised me on how to proceed with my professor, and all the while, gasped in shock and horror that their librarian would commit such a dishonest act. One student did say “I thought you were a nice librarian and then I saw you plagiarizing.  I didn’t know what to think.”  When we revealed the trick to students, many were shocked and a few said they suspected it all along. Either way, the discussions that followed were insightful and provocative. My high expectations of the students were met and then some.

I highly recommend viewing Bob Sprankle’s video if you haven’t already. The trick lesson is one that can be done with Lower, Middle, and Upper School students to spark conversation and set the stage for future learning about plagiarism. For particulars on how we pulled off the trick at Colorado Academy, please contact me at Allison.peters@coloradoacademy.org.



“Common Sense Media.” Common Sense Media. Common Sense Media Inc., 2015. Web. 1 Nov. 2015. <https://www.commonsensemedia.org/>.

Sprankle, Bob. “Copyright and Plagiarism with 3rd and 4th Graders.” bit by bit. WordPress, 21 Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Nov. 2015. <http://bobsprankle.com/bitbybit_wordpress/?p=4199>.

These Go To 11. YouTube. Youtube, 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 1 Nov. 2015. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KOO5S4vxi0o>.

“Whose Is It, Anyway? (3-5).” Common Sense Education. Common Sense Media Inc., 2015. Web. 1 Nov. 2015. <https://www.commonsensemedia.org/educators/lesson/whose-it-anyway-4-5>.


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