Opinion
Classroom Technology Opinion

How One English Teacher Made Peace With ChatGPT

The new technology should spur us to find a role for teachers that can’t be automated.
By Chad Towarnicki — April 06, 2023 4 min read
Human hand on the rung of a ladder with a large cyborg hand reaching down from above to help the person up. Light source glowing around the cyborg hand. Bluish yellow background textured with binary data of ones and zeros.
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Where were you when ChatGPT changed education forever? For me, it was during a Steinbeck unit. The assignment was simple enough. Students chose from a series of Depression era photo galleries depicting a diverse swath of Americans enduring the early 1930s. After viewing a dozen or so pictures, the students then selected one to use as inspiration for a narrative. The story had basic parameters: a clear beginning, middle, and end with intentional use of figurative language and five of the new vocab words from the most recent unit. Working with a partner, the students turned in their drafts at the end of the 45-minute writing session.

At lunch, a colleague asked if I had ever heard of ChatGPT. “It’s unbelievable,” he said. “Check out this political ad for SpongeBob SquarePants.” He read the clever ad that it had produced in a matter of seconds. “It’s funny to see the difference if you tell the bot that he’s running as a Democrat or a Republican.” We continued with our casual conversation, and I left with the impression that ChatGPT was something akin to a viral digital parlor trick.

That night while reading the narratives, I was struck by the fact that every student had submitted one. Was the assignment my co-teacher and I constructed so inspirational that all our students, even the ones who did not appear to use the class time productively, had still hit that 800-word goal? Something was off.

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For a handful of students, the vocabulary words I had requested were not only present but nested in detailed descriptions that far surpassed anything they had written before. As any intrepid 21st-century educator would do, I Googled a handful of sentences as a cursory plagiarism check. With nothing coming up, I Googled “Chat GPT” and started experimenting.

My initial prompts with the bot quickly raised concern. The narrative aside, I fed it many Pennsylvania System of School Assessment style writing prompts from my backlog. The bot didn’t break a sweat of zeroes and ones. I added requests to include key vocab words, key grammar elements, citations from articles, comparisons between texts; the bot filled every request with ease.

As the English/language arts department chair at my middle school, I felt it was my duty to command this new technology to compose an email to the whole staff warning them of its power. It complied, probably because it knew it had already won the war.

By way of providing examples, I added some sample assignments the bot had just passed in that introductory half hour. ELA prompts, science labs, a social studies critique of the Gilded Age, Spanish paragraphs, and even some algebraic equations and open-ended problems were all child’s play for ChatGPT.

Lastly, I asked the bot if I should go to a cabin in Montana to escape the coming AI apocalypse. The bot responded, “I am not programmed to give personal advice.” Was I toying with it, or was it toying with me? I changed it to a narrative prompt, and the bot conceded a 500-word goodbye note that rung eerily true. I was wholly convinced that my job had just changed in a big way.

Many educators ask where do we go from here? What will it be like in 10 years? The tech leap made from 2010 to 2020 was unprecedented. We witnessed the birth and rise of smartphones, cloud computing, social media, data storing and analysis, and even other forms of artificial intelligence. (Those are just the first five examples that ChatGPT told me when I asked, “What are the biggest tech advancements to affect education since 2010?”)

Many teachers are wondering if in-class work is suddenly the only sacred space where we can truly trust a student’s work. Anything resembling “take home” work can officially be crowdsourced by the interwebs. Anything akin to drafting or recording notes without supervision has lost its integrity. In a panic, I contemplated where I stand as a teacher of writing. It is an identity crisis that even ChatGPT would struggle to articulate.

Then I stumbled on a simple agreement with the bot, which is both freeing and hopeful. If AI can take over the summative and standardized data farming of the students, let it. Grant the bot the ability to grade essays, compose assignment examples, and alleviate simple administrivia like observation feedback and parent emails. Sample test questions, practice essays for students to critique, even my student-observation notes, ChatGPT, take it all.

Expecting the modern educator to be a differentiating machine that also serves as a mental health professional has long been a source of burnout. The bubble may have burst if tech can take over the time-consuming administrative tasks that it creates in the first place. What would a world look like where the only tasks left in the classroom were the strictly human ones?

Imagine a world where the teacher’s role has morphed into the job of a life coach, more a content-based counselor than a test administrator. What if the teacher was a guide, a game-maker, a stand-in mentor solely tasked with building a community based on critical-thinking and problem-solving skills?

Rather than merely paying lip service to “relationships” and “belonging,” we could adjust our focus away from testing toward genuinely stoking student curiosity. Rather than writing that will score high on the state standardized test, give me the student voice that no AI can steal. Schools could use the word “community” and mean it. We could tend to negative shifts in our educational communities with the due attention required.

ChatGPT has offered a very clear communication: The future is here, and many of the old ways of delivering content and assessing have changed forever. The ultimate question is, do the parents living in the district want the teachers to be people who can influence their children’s lives? Or will they prefer teachers that read from a script and teach to a test? AI can replace one of those jobs but certainly not both.

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