Even with 28 years of classroom experience, I’m often surprised by the impact of technological innovations on my teaching. So, the articles about ChatGPT answering questions and generating college-level essays just blew my mind.
According to the New York Times, over a million people signed up to test it in the first five days! And AP teachers report that the ChatGPT can convincingly address prompts for LEQ, FRQ, and SAQs. The takeaway for one college professor, interviewed by NBC New’s Kalhan Rosenblatt, is that “the best defense against AI essays is teachers getting to know their students and how they write in order to catch a discrepancy in the work they’re turning in.” Tom Daccord emphasizes the vitality of teachers’ familiarity with student writing in his Intrepid Ed article. And, in an ideal world, we’d all have the time to develop that relationship. It’s significantly easier to build at an independent school—my public school load of 205 student contacts a day made that a much more challenging task.
My general sense of impending doom in a writing class is inflamed by paragraphs written by AI, including, from Daccord, “Sudowrite’s ability to work with the tiniest seed of an idea makes it a potential boon for the writer wondering where to begin, how to build, or what might be next. But it can help in any kind of writing. Sudowrite works well with nonfiction writers, whether their writing topic is new for them or familiar. In fact, it could be helpful for all writers, no matter the field, because it is so focused on the words that are actually written.” And learning that Sudowrite can learn and produce writing in a student’s style inspires an increased sense that becoming familiar with a student’s writing is not going to be sufficient for very long in combating AI in a traditional English classroom. My literal, initial reaction to the ChatBot was “what fresh hell is this?” followed by a more sincere, but still hopeless, “how do we empower students to recognize and create strong, impactful writing when doing so requires their effort and plugging information into ChatGPT does not?” The obvious challenge, despite Sudowrite’s claims, is whether a struggling writer with limited ownership of the final product will let the AI run with the topic, or whether that writer takes inspiration from a paragraph or line and writes the rest of the document independently.
Fortunately, Jessica Cavallaro’s article in Intrepid Ed News helped me reframe. Since students have had access to the internet (or even just older siblings’ work), there’s been ample opportunity to cut corners on writing assignments. I’m reminded of my worst school paper—in 4th grade, I very craftily changed the diction of an encyclopedia entry about South Dakota without citing my source, and was deeply offended by the teacher’s assertion that I’d plagiarized. (Even though I clearly had.) Now, as ever, the task is making sure students use the tools responsibly, and learn the literacy skills they’ll need to move forward.
One task that occurred to me while listening to The Daily podcast episode about this topic was a version of an exercise used to introduce students to the idea of writing with different audiences in mind. While originally, I’d have students change their voice, I can imagine having a class run the ChatBot GPT through the paces—describe a favorite vacation spot, write to a parent to convince them to let you go there on a school night, write to a school administrator to convince them to take your class there, write to a donor to underwrite the trip—in real-time, and use the output to talk about the markers that indicate audience awareness. There’s room to integrate some use of this technology in a relatively standard writing classroom.
Looking at some of the AI-proof skills Cavallaro listed—teamwork, creativity, and critical thinking in particular—and thinking of ways to emphasize those in a writing classroom, I was reminded of A Teacher’s Guide to the Multigenre Research Project which energized my practice in English and history classes. These projects allow choice, require collaboration, and provide opportunities for students to apply knowledge from other disciplines. When author notes, self-assessment, and peer assessment components are added, these become an opportunity to engage in metacognition and critical thinking about the craft of writing–practices that are, currently, AI-proof.
One task that occurred to me while listening to The Daily podcast episode about this topic was a version of an exercise used to introduce students to the idea of writing with different audiences in mind.
Helping students develop a personal voice in writing, asking questions that require reflection and personal connection, encouraging paper journaling and writing sprints in the classroom, learning to balance ownership of a text and acceptance of critical feedback, and evaluating the text of AIresponses to reflective prompts in class are all ways to bolster students’ competency without creating a tremendous burden on writing teachers.
With this in mind, I started my winter holidays rereading the books on writing that feed my enthusiasm for the craft. My current pile includes Ursula LeGuine’s 2015 Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story; Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird; Steven King’s On Writing; and William Zinsser’s classic On Writing Well—they have all inspired and held me up as I’ve worked with students, and all push me to be better.
How do we inspire students to value their own literacy? My most impactful writing instruction happens in the context of the personal statement—students are highly motivated to write succinctly and honestly, to find their own voice and unique angle. It’s difficult to find real-world writing tasks with higher ownership for high school seniors.
About the author
Alli Minch has been a high school English, German, history, civics, independent studies, and fiber arts teacher for the past 28 years. Prior to teaching this large cross-section of courses, Alli was a college counselor, bus driver, advisor, administrator, and Jack-of-all-trades dating back to 1994. Her teaching experience spans both public and private education. Alli currently leads the OESIS Faculty Placement team of departmental specialists.
This article was brought to (ET) Magazine courtesy of our partners at Intrepid Ed News.