I was helping my oldest with a summer writing assignment tonight and ended up using Sparknotes for some background on A Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers. As a teacher, I knew about Sparknotes since our students tend to just copy and paste their papers directly from its pages. However, as I read the plot summaries, character analyses, and thematic discussions, I realized that this could actually be a great resource. If only we could get the kids to use it as a resource instead of a quick fix when they have an essay due.
SparkNotes is actually maintained by Barnes and Noble and contains, in addition to advertising and links to books on sale through the bookseller, quite a few study guides for classic literature, SAT preparation, reference sheets for a variety of subjects (available for download at nominal cost), and even college search information.
Yet all I ever hear students say is, "Oh #%$@! I forgot to read that book for Mrs. Smith's class! Oh well, I'll just use SparkNotes." Wouldn't it be nice if instead they said, "I'm not completely sure that my thesis statement really gets at the central theme of that book we read for Mrs. Smith. I think I'm going to check SparkNotes for some additional ideas. I'll be sure to include the website in my works cited page using proper MLA style!"
Obviously I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek, but is it completely unreasonable to expect kids to still learn these days, using the Internet to augment their own creative and critical thought? SparkNotes is great...Can we resolve this year, though, to make our students use it the same way we used actual books and articles of literary criticism when we were their age? Plagiarism predates the Internet, but the Internet just makes it so easy! This year, let's bring SparkNotes into the classroom, but dissect every word for in-class discussions so that any paper that even resembles a SparkNotes page won't pass muster. Instead, our students might actually learn something from SparkNotes and the countless sites out there that have been doing their work for them.