What ChatGPT means for our writing lessons (opinion)

What ChatGPT means for our writing lessons (opinion)

ChatGTP has arrived at my school and is threatening to pre-retire my colleagues. This new artificial intelligence tool jumped from the Twitter timelines and New York Times headlines to my school’s classrooms in just a few weeks. As the academic dean, I have been inundated with fears about the new technology by teachers of all disciplines.

But math teachers have been through it before, with the calculator long ago and the homework smartphone app Photomath more recently. History teachers weathered the storms of Wikipedia and Google, which some people promised meant students “didn’t need to know anything.” Now it’s time for English teachers to gather their wits and join the fray.

Within the first few days of publication, I watched as my students asked this AI bot to interpret Emily Dickinson’s poems and write entire essays on the same poems in her elliptical, enigmatic style. Simultaneously amazed and disappointed (it turns out ChatGTP’s current strength is not ventriloquism to one of our nation’s poetic geniuses), my students were quick to voice their concern at the existential demise I expect from 17-year-olds. “What was all my education for?” they wailed. “Why should I bother going to college?”

Though framed with renewed urgency, their questions aren’t all that different from those that students have been asking with increasing fervor in recent decades, as technology and finance have displaced the humanities’ pride of place in the firmament of liberal learning. My answer was as simple then as it is now: education is the place where, with a bit of luck, we can train ourselves to be worthy companions for the rest of our lives. Critical and creative reading and writing remain at the core of this project. When we use these skills, we become more than just better thinkers. We find that the loneliness of being human is soothed.

A few years ago, I abandoned the dominant essay paradigm in high school, the five-paragraph essay. I was weary of its wooden structure and skeptical of its simplistic epistemology, which tells students that any truth can be revealed with three pieces of evidence and a neat conclusion.

In place of the fabricated arguments and exquisite evidence of the five-paragraph essay, I created thesis-searching and exploratory assignments that began with the students’ curious observations, buzzing questions, and scraps of speculation.

The essays that the students in my class now construct are best characterized as aimless wanderings. As they write these essays, they lace up their shoes, set off from home, and roam a boundless landscape. They marvel at the murmur of starlings swirling overhead. Like the wandering Walt Whitman, they tuck their pant ends into their boots and enjoy themselves. They change direction, get lost in the undergrowth, find a companion to walk by for a while, and end up in a place they didn’t know existed before. Her lyrics trace this journey in an unabashed first-person voice.

These are the highly personalized tasks we need to prioritize in an era of AI essay writing.

First, I ask my students to describe the places where they searched for first answers, and the content and limits of those first discoveries. My students may start out in dusty volumes in the library basement, in obscure scholarly articles, or even in conversations with a grandmother. Describing the shortcomings of their initial discoveries causes them to revise their questions and reconsider their fledgling claims.

Soon they begin weaving a web of new and better questions. To answer these, they follow the footnotes or scroll back to the novel they loved a year ago. I often find them drawing maps and charting the path of their trek. With each step into a new source, they exercise criticism and synthesis, asking, “What does this help me to understand?” and “What happens if I add it to what I already know?”

Some paths lead to impassable brick walls. Others open to three-way forks in the road. Still others require bridges and great leaps to get to the other side of ignorance.

I ask you to take a critical look at ChatGTP’s finished responses and decide which ones should be examined more closely, as I have done.

As her teacher, I cheer her on from behind the hedge. Occasionally I’ll whisper a compass reading to them or give them new binoculars. My first job is to make sure they have the tools to get to a place of new understanding, but almost as important is my responsibility to help them see the value of the walk they’ve taken, themselves when their final destination remains elusive. After all, sometimes their questions should outweigh their answers.

I imagine that, like it or not, ChatGTP will quickly become a place on the map where my students will stop and look around for a while. I won’t tell them it’s as dangerous as quicksand or as impassable as Everest. Instead, I’ll ask you to take a critical look at ChatGTP’s finished responses and decide which ones deserve more investigation, as I did. As always, I will ask them to venture into new and different places so that the path they eventually write down may be theirs alone.

So what will I tell the faculty now that ChatGTP has arrived? Now it is time for us teachers to wander thoughtfully ourselves. In any discipline, we must determine what it means to guide our students to the skills that will enable meaningful and purposeful living. In the coming weeks, I will ask my colleagues to heed this call: “I am a [insert your subject] Teacher. This is how I deal with ChatGTP.”

Our range of responses may only temporarily halt the fast-moving stream of AI, but in our collecting, thinking, and distilling—in our journeying—we will be less lonely together.

This article was written by a living, breathing teacher.

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