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ChatGPT stormed into our lives and our classrooms, and it’s a mess. But my students and I are jumping in with AI in our English classroom.

5 ways I’ve leveraged AI in my English classroom

ChatGPT stormed into our media, our lives, and our classrooms, and it’s a mess--but my students and I are jumping right in

Key points:

Last spring, a few weeks after I started using ChatGPT, I challenged my high school English students: “Artificial intelligence can do any of your class assignments,” I told them flatly. “Now prove me wrong.”

I wanted to provoke them, to get them to ask questions, and to start using these tools—not to cheat—but to flip their learning on its head. I knew we needed to learn this together. And since that day, we didn’t just shift the paradigms—we sent them into somersaults.

1. Putting ChatGPT on trial

I first became aware of ChatGPT last February when I began reading mind-blowing comments of several progressive educators. As a teacher who strives to help students uncover their interests and stretch their imaginations, I wanted to ensure they were participating in this new technology. We were about to begin our unit on The Crucible and I began wondering how we could leverage ChatGPT.

Typically, at the end of the unit, I ask my students to put various characters on trial, backing up their ideas with plenty of original evidence. This time around, I wanted them to also put ChatGPT on trial. What are its strengths and opportunities, its weaknesses and threats?

So I created a project-based scenario: The students were attorneys for a law firm, and I was their client, bringing them this challenge: I was thinking about investing in ChatGPT. Based on their understanding and the research they’d conduct during The Crucible unit, should I? What would be the implications? The upsides and the down?

So the students began, first reading The Crucible, relying only on their human intelligence. Then, after a week, they opened up their understanding of the classic play through ChatGPT. And it was astonishing: ChatGPT helped students discover subtle nuances and character traits they’d missed initially, created authentic-sounding trial documents that outlined their arguments, provided historical information about the Salem witch trials, and prompted students to explore the play’s themes and messages. It also generated hypothetical conversations between characters, providing fresh insights into how characters evolved throughout the play.

At the unit’s completion, the students had glimpsed AI’s potential—and its potential problems. Many students were concerned about cheating, about bias, about invented “facts,” and about privacy. But, ultimately, the majority of students advised that I, as their client, should invest in AI, finding that it increased efficiencies, helped with workload, sped up research, improved grammar, relieved deadline stress, and more.

2. Using ChatGPT as a creative partner

When they returned from spring break, students found that I’d taken their advice to heart: I’d invested $20 on a premium version of ChatGPT and had created an AI workspace in our classroom. Now I invited them to use ChatGPT during our final inquiry unit, during which they’d ask questions, come up with a plan, leverage their research, and then go public with their findings. Soon they found they could use ChatGPT as a creative, brainstorming, spit-balling partner—with great results: generating open-ended questions, discovering and exploring their interests, creating a day-by-day calendar to reach goals, ideating original art pieces, and augmenting lyrics for songs and scripts. To say they were wowed by ChatGPT’s ability to take their own thinking and creativity further would be an understatement.

3. Considering what’s next

During that inquiry unit, I wanted to better understand—and for my students to better understand—what might be ahead of us in terms of AI. So I invited our school librarians to visit our class, presenting glimmers of what’s ahead: the good, from conducting medical research to solving complex global problems; the bad, from impersonating someone’s speech to waging war with AI; and the surprising, from saving bees to predicting earthquakes.

Impressively, the librarians also fielded questions, addressing ethical considerations of AI, detailing the importance of vocabulary when it comes to writing powerful prompts, and reminding students that they need to be thinkers themselves and not just settle for what ChatGPT generates.  

4. Going from zero to hero

Just days before our fall semester started, I learned that I’d been assigned mythology—a subject I’d not taught before and one without a syllabus. But, like my students during their inquiry unit, I knew I could turn to ChatGPT as my creative partner. To begin, I wrote a thorough prompt, telling it: “You’re a high school English teacher who wants to teach an inquiry-based mythology class with self-directed learning. You have questions and you’re looking for answers. (That’s so the hero’s journey à la Joseph Campbell.) Now create a syllabus, complete with readings.” Less than a minute later, there it was, in all its mind-boggling near perfection. Next, I asked ChatGPT to create a hero’s journey chart with student checkpoints along the way. Once again, in 20 seconds, there it was. In class, I’ve stuck with these materials mostly and, so far, so good.

5. Clubbing—AI style

Most recently, I’ve teamed up with a school librarian to create an extracurricular AI club. We’re not totally clear on our mission or our goals—we’re in the early days. But we do want students to understand what’s happening with AI and to be, if not prepared, at least thinking about AI and how it may impact not only their careers but their lives.

As for that first challenge I presented—the one about AI being able to do any schoolwork—unfortunately, it proved true: AI can do pretty much any class assignment. And that made us all squirm. In fact, that feels scary. But that’s all the more reason to delve into AI. As Bill Gates said last spring, “You definitely want the good guys to have strong AI.” You don’t want only the “bad guys” to be using it, manipulating it to deceive or to swindle or to gain power or to wage war. That’s why we must keep talking about AI with our students. We can’t run away.

Soon AI will be a common tool in myriad fields. That’s why we as educators need to help our students use it, become familiar with it, and think for themselves about its implications. Yes, it’s threatening. It’s also exciting. And it’s going to be their world.

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