Chapter 14 – Integrity


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I read an unscientific experiment on lost cell phones ( ). Researchers “lost” fifty cell phones with personal information on them. Half of the people who found them returned them; half did not. I am deeply thankful that the person who found my cell phone and wallet during a field trip at Silver Dollar City was in the former half. Many years ago, I read some research on why some governments had worked for hundreds of years and why others repeatedly failed. The writers concluded that the functional governments had primarily honest citizenry, people who did their jobs and paid their taxes. Failing countries did not. Now organizations even produce reports spotlighting the corrupt practices of every country in the world ( Integrity is not only a moral choice; it keeps the world functioning peacefully.

We ask our students to be honest in so many ways. Obviously, we ask them not to lie, cheat or steal, but we also want them to be honest writers and to think clearly as scientists. We ask them to participate fully and to stay engaged, another form of intellectual truthfulness. We ask them to clean up after themselves, which for many children involves admitting they made the mess. We ask them to stay in their place in line and not cheat their way up, no matter how badly they want first choice of lunch seats. And we often ask whose fault it was. We essentially ask for integrity in some form all day, every day.

The problem that children have with integrity is that it often comes with a price. Almost all other character traits come without consequences. Compassion, kindness, respect, cooperation, responsibility, courage, tolerance, self-control, and trustworthiness are all celebrated when a child exhibits them. Demonstrating integrity, however, can mean admitting that you told a lie, hurt someone’s feelings, broke a toy, or stole food. Scant applause for that.

Fostering integrity therefore becomes a kind of dance between being finding consequences appropriate to the behavior and not wanting to come down so hard that you dis-incent truthfulness in the future. When a child struggles with a moral dilemma, I will often give her a choice, “Lenora, here are your choices. You can put that handful of candy back right now, and still have a chance to earn a piece next week, or you can continue to pretend you don’t have any and get none for the next two weeks. In any case, you’ll be emptying your hands in a minute. You decide.” Having given one choice or the other, I have to make it come true or students begin to mistrust my integrity.

Theft makes me crazy, but cheating breaks my heart. I feel it carries a high cost both morally and academically. It costs the child who didn’t learn, it costs the teacher who can’t properly assess learning, it costs the child who gave away their work, and it costs the witnesses self-respect. With middle school students, I discussed this early in the year and introduced my version of an honor pledge. I printed eight on a page, cut them up, and kept them in a pile next to the pencil sharpener. We stapled them on the front of every assignment and test. If they needed to tell me more, they wrote a quick note on the back.

Honor Pledge

On my honor, I have not and will not give or receive any unauthorized aid on this assignment.

___ My conscience is clear, and I sign this pledge freely.

___ I am a little concerned, but I think it’s okay to sign.

___ I am very concerned that I did something wrong. We need to talk.

___ I cheated on this assignment. We need to find a way to make it up.

Assignment   ___________________________

Signature ______________________________

Date _________

We discussed the concept of honor and the meaning of unauthorized aid. Appropriate help varies by assignment, and by 6th grade, I expect that students can figure out that it is okay to check each other’s spelling sentences, but not each other’s spelling tests. This phrase also let the special education students who work with aides know that their help is permissible. We went over several situations in class until I was sure we were all clear. I also went over “have not and will not.” “Have not” means they didn’t get the test questions from the previous period. “Will not” means they won’t snap a picture of the test, send texts about it, nor run out and talk about it with the next period’s students.

Then we talked about the choices that they had to make. Almost always, they would choose the first one. But what if they were worried that a parent helped them too much? What if they meant to work with another student, but ended up copying? Or if they simply copied it off of the internet? This was their last chance to let me know and clear their conscience. If they told me on the honor pledge, I promised no major consequences. We would figure something out, and I would not tell their parents. Some students did make the third or fourth choice, and I kept my promise even when I caught them cheating later.

The final thing I had to discuss with the class is witnessing cheating. The last thing they want to do is become involved, but they are. To let cheating persist is almost as bad as doing it yourself. Plus, I wanted these children to learn to step up against bullying, drugs, and later in their lives, poverty, racism, and violence. This is one of the first places where they would learn to make the hard choice.

The honor pledges did tip me off to a few cheating “scandals.” They usually revolved around Accelerated Reader. Students read a book, then take a quiz to verify that they read it. Because students were allowed to take quizzes in the library during lunch, I wasn’t always there to supervise and relied on quarterly honor pledges to let me know of any problems. Every once in a while, I would get a note on the back, start interviewing children around the school, and find out that some 7th grader had been giving answers to my 6th graders or that one child had stood behind another (a clear rule violation) either reading or giving answers. I always went easy on the students who reported and then checked the honor pledges of the students who had been found out. If they said their consciences were clear, I showed the pledge to their parents and arranged to do some after school reading together for a couple of weeks, usually from the book in question.

What surprised me most about the honor pledge was how relieved students were to have it. It was as if they had already witnessed plenty of cheating, were upset by it, and didn’t know what to do about it. They seemed glad to have a teacher that listened. In fact, if I forgot to attach it to an assignment, they requested it. They were proud of their hard work, proud of their honest effort, and wanted, sometimes demanded, a way to say so.

The other place students get into hot water is plagiarism. We tell them not to copy from the internet, but Google a suspiciously adult phrase in their writing and up it pops. I once wrote an effusive note to one of my less articulate 6th grade girls because her poem was deep and wonderful. Then I Googled it. So disappointing. The truth is that children have no idea how not to copy unless you teach them. In general, their approach is to find one source, write it all down, and turn it in. In trying to teach them otherwise, I pulled examples from actual student writing and started my lesson with this page.

Plagiarism Examples

Pretending material is original work

Student book recommendation: Through thick runs the plot (as well as the spine), readers will race through these pages, and leave Hogwarts, like Harry, wishing only for the next train back.

Book jacket, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix:

Though thick runs the plot (as well as the spine), readers will race through these pages, and leave Hogwarts, like Harry, wishing only for the next train back.

Copying with little or no rewriting and failing to credit original author

Student paper:

Seth managed to blind Horus by taking out his eye and tearing it to bits. Thoth, the God of Wisdom, managed to heal the eye. Eventually, Horus won the war, and Seth was driven out to the Sahara Desert.

Web site, :

Once Seth managed to blind Horus by taking out his eye and tearing it to bits, but Thoth, the God of Wisdom, managed to heal the eye. Eventually, Horus won the war, and Seth was driven out into the Sahara Desert.

Copying with some rewriting and failing to credit the original author

Student paper:

Bastet or Bast is the daughter of the sun god Ra, wife of Ptah, and mother of Mihos. She is an ancient Egyptian goddess who is still greatly known by many today. Her worship began around the year 3200 BCE during the second dynasty in northern Egypt and her city was Bubastis.

Web site, :

Bast (Bastet, Pasch, Ubasti, Ba en Aset) – Daughter of the sun god Ra, wife of Ptah, and mother of Mihos, Bast is an ancient Egyptian goddess who is still greatly revered by many today. Her worship began around the year 3200 BCE during the second dynasty in northern Egypt and her city is Bubastis.

Acceptable rewriting, but failing to note the source in the bibliography

Student paper:

Anubis was the god of the Underworld who guided and protected the spirits of the dead. He was known as the “Lord of the Hallowed Land.” He was also the guardian of Necropolis (cemetery).

Web site :

Anubis (Inpew, Yinepu, Anpu) was an ancient Egyptian god of the underworld who guided and protected the spirits of the dead. He was known as the ‘Lord of the Hallowed Land’ – the necropolis… To the Egyptians, Anubis was the protector of embalming and guardian of both the mummy and the necropolis.

In ancient times, before the internet, teachers taught us to write research papers by taking notes, one idea per index card, re-sorting the cards according to our outline, adding our ideas, writing and creating a bibliography. Tedious, but it did force us to use many sources which is the next step in my lesson. Having many sources means they have to reconcile several ideas. Besides doing advanced thinking, it makes copying difficult. (I give students a choice now. Some choose cards, some take notes, some highlight printouts.) After that, we had to use an outline. Step Up to Writing has some terrific ideas to teach power outlining, but if you don’t have access, find a way to teach simple outlines. That will force students to reshuffle the information they got from various sources. The outline will have holes which will force students to add their own ideas. Then they can finally write and finish by completely panicking because they lost the notes for their bibliography. At this point, you should have helped your students move far past plagiarism. All of you can be proud.

Lessons in integrity go on all day, every day, but the biggest lesson is you. A good friend of mine once proudly told me how he tricked his daughter every night by telling her that if she put herself to bed, he would read to her, but then “forgetting” to show up until she was asleep. He thought that was a pretty good deal. It took me a few days to put my finger on why that bothered me. Then I finally realized that I don’t want my child going to bed every night with a lie. And I don’t want my students living their days with a lie. If I promise extra recess, then I have to make it come true. If I promise an embargo on gum chewing, then I have to make that come true. If I promise a class pet, then we’ll have to agree on one. The snake idea freaked me out, but fortunately, turtles aren’t as yucky as I thought. There are times when I can’t keep a promise that day or as I intended, and I have a quick meeting with the class to figure out what to do. With integrity comes trust, and if I demand it from my students, I have to expect it of myself.


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