For at least four years, Palo Alto High School students have been submitting papers to their teachers through the website Turnitin.com, which allows them to generate an "originality report" on the document before handing it over.
"If there's any sentence that appears to have been copied, cut and pasted, they have the opportunity to change it before the paper is submitted," said teacher Shirley Tokheim, who is instructional supervisor for Paly's English Department.
"It's a way to set them up to succeed rather than to catch them."
Paly Principal Phil Winston said the school pays a licensing fee to Turnitin, which allows use across the school, with the English Department leading the way.
"We've had it for at least the three years I've been here. It really picked up a few years ago, and this year we're educating students what it means to turn it in and what to look for on the color-coded analytics," Winston said.
A paper turned in through the website is time-stamped and gives the student the option of running an originality check ahead of time, Tokheim said.
Mistakes can occur when students are up against a deadline, she said.
"It can be a problem if students don't have time to run it through Turnitin and have inadvertently cut and pasted without citing it in their paper."
Tokheim demonstrated Turnitin's "originality check" feature with a student paper about "Thank You for the Light," an F. Scott Fitzgerald essay that the New Yorker published last summer after having originally rejected it in 1936.
Turnitin generated a "Match Overview" for the Paly student's paper, showing that identical quotes had been submitted at Princeton University and the Elk Grove Unified School District, among other places.
But the matching quotes turned out to be legitimate — and properly cited — pieces from the original text.
Tokheim said the English Department is working on standardized training for students on the proper use of Turnitin, including an instructional video being created by students.
"There have been some misunderstandings that caused some students either not to check or to make some assumptions that got them into trouble, so we're trying to clarify and educate them. The video should help a lot," she said.
Tokheim said she gets about five cases a year of serious plagiarism, and "they're all hard.
"It can be a phrase, a sentence or multiple sentences that have been cut and pasted and not attributed. By the time they get to me it usually involves parents, and everybody's upset."
Besides changing things for students, widespread use of Turnitin has transformed the grading experience for teachers.
"It's kind of a shift when you go from reading papers at your kitchen table to reading online," Tokheim said.
"It frees up this feeling that you have hundreds of papers to go through — you still do, but it's just different.
"It's a lot neater, and it forces you to make more global comments, which I think are better for students."
At the start of a semester Tokheim still asks students to turn in their first few papers in hard copy so she can read them the old-fashioned way.
Because of her duties as instructional supervisor Tokheim teaches just two English classes of 35 students each, plus a smaller "restart" class for students needing to make up credit.
Other teachers, though, can have as many as five classes with 30 students apiece.
"Each paper can take at least 10 minutes, so it's like a part-time job outside of teaching and planning."
With English class sizes creeping up in recent years, "We're always trying to find different ways to have students continue to write and find ways to give them feedback," Tokheim said.