How I Can I Prove to My Teacher That I Did Not Plagiarize?

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How can I prove to my teacher that my essay was not plagiarized? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Shulamit Widawsky, Gifted Specialist, on Quora:

In fourth grade, my teacher assigned a one page essay on a foreign country. I was assigned a small country in South America that I had never heard of. I was eight years old, and really had never studied “a country” before.

So I opened up my World Book Encyclopedia to the eight page article on my assigned country, and read it.

Then I wrote my one page, wide-ruled, hand-written essay.

Since I had never read or written about any other country, the style used in the encyclopedia was the only example I knew of how this should be done.

Therefore, I picked up the style. But I did not copy anything from the encyclopedia. I read the eight pages, closed the book, thought about my assignment, and decided how I would write that essay. Then I wrote it.

I turned it in, and a few days later my teacher handed it back to me. It had red ink across the top that informed me I got an “F” because I copied from the encyclopedia.

I was devastated, and way too young to understand that the problem I encountered was a teacher who could not believe an eight year old could write in the same style as an encyclopedia without copying.

My response was to stop turning in written homework assignments.

As an eight year old with parents who didn’t support me in anything, it did not occur to me to speak to the teacher, my parents, or anyone else. I just cried, and didn’t ask for any help.

My final semester of high school, my English teacher and the dean came to me and said they knew I was smart, and they knew I could write, but I had managed to evade every assignment to write an essay, and if I did not write one, they could not graduate me.

To this day, I do not recall what subject I wrote that essay on. I am positive I wrote it completely out of my head, using no resources at all, and probably wrote the whole thing during lunch time with the teacher, so no one could accuse me of cheating. But I don’t know for sure, because I utterly blocked out the memory.

Fast-forward a few years to college.

Third year of my psychology degree, and my final paper is the best, hardest piece I’ve ever written in my life. I wrote a psychological evaluation of the relationships in a particular movie that was popular at the time. I sneaked a recording device into the theater so I could be sure to have perfect citations of the dialogue.

The books and articles I used to put together my theories and apply them were way above undergrad level, but I didn’t care. I worked harder on that paper than anything in my life.

It is important to note, at this point in the story, that I reread my paper while I was in graduate school, and realize I couldn’t completely understand the depths of what I had written! I spent two weeks reviewing my own paper and the books and articles from my citations, so I could understand my own writing. It was a complex paper, like learning a foreign language but forgetting some of the vocabulary due to not using the language for a couple years.

I point this out to clarify how complex this paper was.

Back to undergrad… my professor returned the papers, and mine had an “A” emblazoned in red on the cover. I flipped through the pages to see what kind of comments he made, and was brought to a full stop at his comment next to one paragraph in the middle of the paper:

Do you understand what you have written here?

I was so angry I could spit. I knew what that question meant. It meant he thought I had copied those words from something. That was the only thing it could mean, because if I wrote them myself (I did, and that is why they were not cited), of course I would understand them.

But then I was in my twenties, I was not a little child, and I didn’t take being wrongly accused from anyone. Not even from some famous psychology professor.

After class I told him I needed to speak with him.

The classroom emptied out, and it was just the two of us. I put my paper down on the table, and opened it to the place where he had made that accusatory comment.

This is not verbatim, but essentially what I said. “I know what that comment means,” I said. “It means you don’t believe it is my own original work. It means you think I lifted it from some book because it looked good, and your question suggests that I did so because I was incapable of putting it into my own words. Because if I understood it, I wouldn’t need to use someone else’s paragraph, right?”

He looked a bit nervous, maybe even slightly ashamed.

He nodded his head.

I said something like, “I’m guessing you had trouble understanding what I wrote. Because I worked very hard to understand that concept, spent hours on it. So I can believe that it would be hard to understand. But you’ve known me for two years, and you know me better than to imagine I would plagiarize, or that I would include something in my paper that I didn’t understand. Also, you read the rest of the paper—you saw the high level I was writing at. Why would I put some bit that I didn’t understand in the middle of that paper?”

He stood there for a second, silent. Then he said, “You’re right.” And he apologized, and he pulled out his pen and turned my A into an A+.

The details of this question states:

I spent a lot of time on an English essay and upon grading, I was accused of plagiarism. After talking to her, she said the specific word choices I used caused her to believe it was plagiarized. What can I do to prove it was not plagiarized?

Start by talking with her alone. For her to recognize that you did not plagiarize in your paper, is going to require her to admit she made a serious error. It is hard enough to get anyone to admit a serious error, but an audience makes it worse.

Tell her you want to have some time to spend with her, regarding your paper. You may need to meet with her at lunch or before or after school. Tell her you will bring your notes and early drafts (if you have any) so she can see how you got to where you got to. And at that meeting you want her to ask you any questions she would like about any vocabulary or passages that you wrote in your paper, so you can explain what they mean, and how you chose them. She says the problem is specific word choices? Then she can ask you about specific words.

If she cannot point out specific words or phrases, and she digs in her heels, repeat that you did not plagiarize the paper, that you spent a lot of time getting it to be this good, and you understand how it could be hard for her to imagine a young person using that kind of language, but this is the way it is with you. And if she will continue being your teacher, she will have to find a way to get used to you using such words and phrases.

That ought to shake her out of her low expectations of you as her student.

But if it does not, you must take your paper to an administrator you can trust in your school, and start the process over again. Present the paper and any notes or early drafts, and explain that your teacher thinks you plagiarized, but you didn’t.

And if you can find no one at your school who will listen to you, then you need to sign up to speak at the next school board meeting, and bring in your paper and your complaint, and explain your problem to the school board.

Students who cheat do not do all these things. They do not want that much attention, and cheaters cheat because it is the easy way.

You took the hard way, and your teacher doesn’t believe you. That is unfair, but it might be just a mistake on her part, because she may never have seen someone in your academic level accomplish that kind of English paper.

She may be thinking that a young person cannot accomplish writing at that level. You may be completely destroying her ideas about what kids can do.

Another thought—

If you happen to be someone who a teacher might look down on, due to being poor, or some other kind of prejudice, then you might have potential for a law suit, depending on what country you are in.

If the teacher just never had a writer as good as you, she needs to learn there are amazing writers, and they may be young. But if that teacher is revealing some kind of prejudice about you, imagining that someone “like you” could never be that capable, then you might consider speaking to a civil rights attorney. If you are in the U.S., try contacting your local office of the ACLU, The American Civil Liberties Union.

Don’t ever let anyone make you feel bad for being good at something. People do make mistakes, because they never encountered a thing before. But when faced with being called up on it, and given the opportunity to let you show that you really did write it yourself, they should stand up and give you your due.

And if they don’t, do not stop until you find someone who will. No one deserves to be stuck in a classroom with a teacher who instead of recognizing the best student she may ever have had, thinks of you as a liar.

I hope she can come to recognize her mistake. But if she cannot, someone will, as long as you keep pushing this issue up the chain of command.

My education almost got destroyed because one teacher thought I plagiarized when I didn’t, and I had no idea what to do about it except to pull away from academics. I hope my experience can help you have a very different path.

Courage—you can do this.

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