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Spark Your Own Ideas

In a world where questions can be answered in within a few keystrokes, many high school students – CB students – have turned away from their literature books and towards the many online study guides and summaries. Such sites, like SparkNotes or Shmoop, pay college students to summarize the plot of popular classroom literature while […]

In a world where questions can be answered in within a few keystrokes, many high school students – CB students – have turned away from their literature books and towards the many online study guides and summaries. Such sites, like SparkNotes or Shmoop, pay college students to summarize the plot of popular classroom literature while noting prominent themes and significant symbols. It’s convenient, yes. But does it help?

“I think it’d be a lot harder to pass a literature test without these resources,” says one of my classmates. “They make it so much easier to understand [the books].”

For more tangible data, I asked every student in my Honors American Literature class on whether they had ever used these online resources to study for a test. Everyone – even English Department Award winner and fellow Talon Staff Writer Michaela Cahill (‘18) – responded with a nod.

It’s this type of behavior that disappoints my literature teacher, Ms. Chrys Cassetta.

“I want to know how my students are interpreting the book,” the Honors American Literature instructor says. “I don’t want to know what ‘Sparky’ says.”

Honors Sophomore Literature and Composition teacher  Ms. Mary Bowers has a different approach.

“SparkNotes fulfills a purpose. And when used correctly, [it] can be a good thing,” she says. “Once a student has read the book, I think Sparknotes is a great way to review for tests, to refresh the memory for finals, [and to check] something that you didn’t understand.”

These online study guides are successful because of how helpful they are. The summaries are simple, yet summarize and explain the plot well. The themes offered can be basic at times, but they are explained in a short and concise manner. Same goes for the symbols and character analysis. However, with all this help, students who depend too heavily on these resources fail to learn how to properly examine literature in general.

Depending solely on Sparknotes can also be detrimental. Studying the actual text often results in higher scores. Case in point: future literature major Nicholas Rubio (‘18).

“I read SparkNotes and I still get B’s on my tests,” he claims.

Now, regardless of how SparkNotes are used, are they considered cheating? Ms. Cassetta, a strong opponent of SparkNotes, has taken drastic action against these types of resources. iPad are no longer allowed to be out during class. By banning our devices, Ms. Cassetta hopes to stop the spread of these online interpretations.

“It’s cheating,” Ms. Cassetta says. “It’s taking ideas that aren’t your own.”

Even stealing ideas aside, there’s a bigger problem with Sparknotes.

“If [Sparknotes] is used to substitute for reading, that’s terrible,” says Ms. Bowers.

The point of learning literature isn’t just to memorize the themes and ideas from a certain book, Ms. Bowers says. The main goals of a literature class are to:

– Improve writing skills
– Learn how to format an coherent argument
– Learn how to analyze and find tropes and commonalities in literature

Simply put, students have a lot more at stake than just their grades. By depending solely on sites like Shmoop, students risk writing like an illiterate, becoming an illiterate, making stupid arguments, and failing to realize subtleties in language and writing.

That’s bad.

And perhaps the argument that students are cheating themselves won’t work. But maybe the knowledge that teachers can normally tell the difference between student generated ideas and online found ideas might.

“I’ve been reading [my students’] writing for a year now,” says Ms. Cassetta. “I can normally tell when [the writing style or flow] has changed.”

Of course, teachers will of course judge you if you take the easy way out. And of course, some students don’t really care what their teachers think about them. In that case, by all means, go ahead and take the easy way out. But if you value your parents’ hard-earned money, enjoy improving yourself, appreciate new perspectives, or want your teachers to respect you… maybe you’ll use your resources appropriately next time.

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