This post was written by NCTE Member Brett Vogelsinger. This post originally appeared on Corwin Connect, © 2023 Corwin Press.
Artificial intelligence is changing the landscape of our written language, seeping into schools, the workplace, and the shadowy world of deepfakes. Some have compared the projected magnitude of its impact to that of the calculator or the internet itself.
When I asked ChatGPT to create an analogy about itself, it had this to say: “Just as the Gutenberg Printing Press revolutionized the way information was disseminated and shared during the Renaissance, ChatGPT is changing the way people interact and communicate in the digital age. Both technologies have democratized access to knowledge and allowed individuals to connect and exchange ideas on a scale previously unimaginable.”
What an audacious and benevolent-sounding bot, eh?
“Encountering a new technology alongside our students puts us in a beautiful position to learn beside them. We can leverage our maturity and insight to guide them on using AI ethically, even as we strive to find our own way through the woods.”
AI will, like any technology, have some nefarious effects on humans and on the classroom. It can spout blatant inaccuracy with an air of authority that might remind you of your Aunt Gloria’s generous misinformation at family reunions. Heck, a student and I found it citing Pew Research with very specific statistics that did not exist anywhere on Pew Research’s website!
That said, it is also excellent at explaining how to properly use new vocabulary, employ a grammar technique, or alternately word a thorny passage. It can offer broad, observational feedback on student writing.
Encountering a new technology alongside our students puts us in a beautiful position to learn beside them. We can leverage our maturity and insight to guide them on using AI ethically, even as we strive to find our own way through the woods.
I am inviting AI tools into my classroom with a few essential questions in mind:
- What is valuable about human writing–both for the reader and the writer–that AI cannot replicate? How will I express and demonstrate this to students?
- How might AI be used as an insightful, knowledgeable, and blazingly efficient conference partner or tutor?
- When is it important for a first draft to be exclusively human-created, and when is it valuable to jumpstart a draft with AI assistance?
- How can this technology help students to acquire more practice in the interesting, difficult, and meaningful work of revision by streamlining first drafts?
The great thing about these questions is that no one has the answers. It’s too early. But just as AI becomes most useful when we learn to ask our questions well, so its use in classrooms will become most ethical when we embrace quality questions and approach the topic with intellectual curiosity. (Check out this Twitter thread from Alex Brogan around AI prompt engineering.)
Already, I have worked with students to write collaboratively with ChatGPT. The few students who chose to take me up on my offer to write this way led me to some great conversations around meaningful questions:
- What is the difference between taking paragraphs wholesale from ChatGPT and weaving bits of AI with our own words? Why is a “woven” essay preferable to an essay that has big chunks written just by the student and other chunks completely created by AI?
- When ChatGPT asserts something with a tone of authority, what is our responsibility as writers in confirming the accuracy of the assertion? How do we do this? Is this simpler or more complicated than researching a topic from a reliable source and citing a quote or paraphrased idea?
- How can ChatGPT point us in a new direction in our writing, raise a new idea that we can pursue, or get us past some writer’s block when we run out of things to say?
Those who chose to collaborate with AI used color-coding and annotating of their own work to explain what was generated by AI and how it was used. There are not yet conventions for citing this, so we negotiated our own methods.
Four basic steps can help us maintain a stance of curiosity as we teach students to write in the age of AI.
We must experiment with the technology ourselves,
offer opportunities for our students to do the same,
ask questions about their process and our own, and
confer with students about how to credit their collaboration and how they might use their learning on their next writing project.
This curiosity and reflection provide a model for our students as well. I recently finished reading Catherine Price’s book, How to Break Up with Your Phone. One of the main points in the book is that humans have fallen into an intimate relationship with their smartphones so rapidly that they never paused to consider what was good or bad about the relationship before making decisions. In our bones, I think we all know this about our smartphones. It is part of why some people have such apocalyptic fear of AI.
On the other hand, maybe our smartphone relationships have primed us to think about and craft a relationship with AI from the start that is healthier and more balanced. We can model that by thinking aloud with our students as we dabble. We can define what a healthy relationship with this technology looks like. We are equals alongside our students in experience with AI, but our maturity still makes us mentors. They need us. And we need them. Together we can seek answers and find how AI can be helpful and harmful to us. That is exciting, hopeful, thoughtful work.
I have always loved this quote from Loris Malguzzi: “Learning and teaching should not stand on opposite banks and just watch the river flow by; instead, they should embark together on a journey down the water.”
With artificial intelligence, our profession embarks on yet another journey.
Let’s not watch the river flow by, wagging our heads and bemoaning the bygone era, our perceptions warped by nostalgia. Instead, jump in the boat. Bring your curiosity and your skill. Lean into listening and learning. Your insight matters, and so does your inexperience. We are – teachers and students alike — beginning the journey together.
Brett Vogelsinger has been teaching English language arts for 20 years and currently teaches ninth-grade students at Holicong Middle School in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Brett recently published Poetry Pauses: Teaching With Poems to Elevate Student Writing in All Genres with Corwin Press. He is a regular contributor at the Moving Writers blog and has written about teaching and learning for Edutopia, NCTE Verse, and The New York Times Learning Network. When not teaching, grading, or writing about such things, you will likely find him spending time with his family, his garden, or his Jenga tower of books he plans to read. You can find him on Twitter @theVogelman on Twitter or at his website, www.brettvogelsinger.com.
It is the policy of NCTE in all publications, including the Literacy & NCTE blog, to provide a forum for the open discussion of ideas concerning the content and the teaching of English and the language arts. Publicity accorded to any particular point of view does not imply endorsement by the Executive Committee, the Board of Directors, the staff, or the membership at large, except in announcements of policy, where such endorsement is clearly specified.