Sunday, October 22, 2023

Getting outside with Write Out 2023

Red Butte Canyon. Photo by me
Every year in mid-October the National Writing Project and the National Park Service sponsor Write Out, ​​”a free two-week celebration of writing, making, and sharing inspired by the great outdoors.” This is the last day of Write Out which ran from October 8-22 this year.

Back when I was in high school I would have done anything to get outside, but it’s strange now to think about how many years have gone by since I did that as a teacher. Over the past couple of years I’ve rediscovered the joys of writing and reading outdoors. For all the bad that came out of the Covid pandemic (and there are too many to mention here), one of the good things was the imperative to take students outside. Because we had to socially distance during Covid, we found lots of spaces around our small, urban campus to hold classes outdoors. At first learning outside was for their and my own safety, but it’s one of the things that I’ve held onto the past couple of years.

For example my photography students focused on the concept of negative space, which is the empty space around the main subject. It can be something as simple as the sky, a blank wall, a blurred background, or a consistent color. The more you look at photography, art, print design, display advertising, and public service announcements, the more you see the power of placing text in the negative space of an image.

So ostensibly to photograph negative space (but really it was about getting outside on a golden autumn day), we took a field trip up to Red Butte Canyon in Salt Lake City. We chose the Six Word Story prompt that Ranger Cindy describes on the Write Out website.

Six Word Story by Isaac.
Red Butte is just a mile or so from our school, and before long as we turned to look behind us the city disappeared behind the narrow canyon. I’m no stranger to leveraging digital tools in my teaching, but anytime I take classes outside now I think my students and I share a little bit of that same feeling that we had in the canyon – the screens and distractions are left behind while we photograph, read books, and write with pens on paper.

And just last week my senior English class went outside on the National Day on Writing. It was a Friday afternoon where a number of students had checked out for fall sports and other activities, so the students were already a little antsy. I decided to take a page from the NCTE suggested activities for the day and cover the sidewalk with powerful words.

Kudos to NWP and NCTE for reminding me to take it outside.

Wednesday, March 08, 2023

PhatGPT - Possibilities for AI in the writing classroom

I've been experimenting with ChatGPT and Open AI with my high school seniors since December 2022. The pitfalls of this new tech have been well documented, so in this post I'll spend more time on some of the potential and possibilities for AI in the writing classroom (in other words, "PhatGPT").

On Jan. 26, 2023 I had a fascinating conversation on a WRITE Center Webinar with Mark Warschauer, Elyse Eidman-Aadahl, and Paul Allison (slides below). 

A little background: I teach high school English and media production, and my first example comes from my class of regular English 9 students. This class has students who struggle with literacy and those who are fluent writers. It’s my first time teaching 9th grade in about 15 years. I’m in my 38th year of teaching, and I’m still trying to wrap my head around how AI will impact writing instruction and education in general. 

That said, it’s here, and I want to prepare my students to be aware of this technology as a tool that can improve their thinking and writing, rather than a nifty little gizmo that does their work for them. And I think it’s worth saying that what I talked about in this webinar is rooted in sound writing pedagogy. 

In this first case study, I wanted students to write an essay where they synthesized what they learned while we read a book together and journaled their individual thoughts. My English 9 students and I read The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon, a fictional story narrated by a teenager with autism. It was my first time teaching the book. I supplemented it by watching parts of documentaries about real people with autism spectrum disorder. 

My goal was to have the students read a book but also learn what it’s like to live with ASD, and maybe to be more tolerant of neurodivergent thinkers in general. For my semester exam my students were to write an essay with pen on paper in 75 minutes. 

To be honest I was struggling with creating an essay prompt that would be challenging enough to hold people’s attention but supportive enough for the others And I should add that this was the last exam the Friday before we got out for Christmas vacation. It was the last of four days of semester exams for them, and when the bell rang, it was Christmas vacation. 

 So Paul and I used ChatGPT to help me think this task through. Paul and I started by asking questions in ChatGPT interface about autism, questions that I still had even after learning about it over the past month. It was easy to enter these questions in a text box (see Mark’s slides 7-11).  
Can you summarize the most important things to know about autism? 
What do people who live with autism say about neurodivergence (Temple Grandin, Kim Peek, Ethan Lisi)? 
  • How might I structure an essay about autism, using examples from real people with ASD? 
  • Can you give me an example of the kind of essay you’re describing? 
  • What if I want to include my own experience of people with ASD? 
  • Do you have any suggestions for how I might personalize this essay? 
  • How could I design an essay prompt for this topic that requires examples? 
  •  Can you summarize all this to help me get started? 

I argue that this thinking process was different than just Googling an essay topic about autism and the Curious Incident. In this case, the Chatbot became a thinking partner for me (see slide 32). The chatbot had more interest in the topic than even my most empathetic colleague. 

You can look at the final essay prompt which is linked on the slide. It’s way longer than I originally was thinking when I was struggling with this task, before engaging with ChatGPT. 

If you're a teacher you might be wondering how I had the time for this. There was a lot more up front time but the result was a richer experience for my students. In nearly every case, their writing exceeded my expectations. The students were engaged right up until the bell. 

So back to the issue of how time consuming this was. Well, there’s also a lot of time I put into responding to, and assessing, these essays. All of this time was much more enjoyable than it usually is because of the overall quality of student writing. As I read through their work I found myself saying, “I want to keep on reading!” This doesn’t always happen when I am assessing student work. 

My second example is where I used AI to help my 12th grade AP English Language and Composition students. I've been involved with NWP for a long time, and am a believer in an inquiry-based writing classroom. 

Incidentally, I think an inquiry-based approach to writing instruction makes it less likely that students will plagiarize (Elyse, slide 19). Like in a lot of your classes I want my students to assess the credibility of sources and then to be able to synthesize credible sources into their own original writing. But one of the problems of practice I experience with this kind of approach is making sure that students are accurately summarizing credible sources. 

Just like we do in our classes where we teach students how to assess the credibility of sources, we teachers can write instructions for AI to help our students check for credibility every time before they actually start summarizing an article. So I thought AI could help with this task. 

On slide 33 you'll see an assignment where my students create a post on a website called Youth Voices. What’s different is that on this site they can communicate with AI in a controlled way. To use AI in a powerful way, where the student writers can engage with AI like a thinking partner. The first day back from winter break I had my students write about a story or event from 2022 that was personally significant. Students then wrote summaries of those articles and then compare their summaries with AI summaries. 

An example of one of my students work can be seen on slides 34 and 35

A lot of what teachers worried about when ChatGPT first burst on to the scene was that students wouldn't have to write anymore, bots would do it for them. What's important in all of this experimentation that I've described above is that my students are doing the work first, and AI is being used as a thinking partner. Students still do the work first, and then get feedback from AI. And they use this feedback to improve their writing. This isn’t plagiarism.