Connections: Linking Talented Educators
Connections: Linking Talented Educators

Educators, It’s Time to Embrace AI

July 31, 2023

AI brain2

Milken Educators share responsible ways to use ChatGPT in the classroom.

By Erika Kerekes

Last month, at the Upstate Technology Conference (UTC) in Greenville, South Carolina, Dr. Shasta Looper (SC ’12) addressed two packed rooms during presentations on this year’s hottest topic in education: artificial intelligence (AI). “The audiences included everyone from first-year teachers to veterans with 20-plus years in education,” says Shasta, who led sessions on using AI to increase teacher efficiency and incorporating it into ELA classrooms. “Teachers know that AI is here and kids are going to use it, so they need to educate themselves and be prepared.”

Since the November 2022 launch of ChatGPT, hundreds of millions of people have experimented with the AI-fueled chatbot — including students, of course, with or without their teachers’ blessing. And as has happened before when teachers run up against new technology — think calculators, Google, cellphones — many educators’ initial reaction has been to block it.

AI Shasta Looper quote

But that’s a mistake, agree Milken Educators who have embraced AI as a teaching and learning tool. “This is something kids will embrace,” says Shasta. “It’s our job to teach students how to use AI responsibly.” Adds Jayda Pugliese (PA ’16), principal at St. Mary Interparochial School in Philadelphia: “Denying AI exists won’t work. It’s better to be ahead of the curve and teach students to use it properly.”

Fifth grade teacher Wade Whitehead (VA ’00) looks at ChatGPT the same way he evaluates any technology, field trip, project, assignment, quiz or lesson plan: How can I use it to help kids learn more than they might otherwise? How can it expand choice and amplify student voice? “By applying this litmus test to every learning opportunity, including AI, I hope to keep it in its place as a means to an end,” Wade says. He bases all of his decisions about technology on one key assumption: People are smarter than computers, not vice versa.

AI Wade Whitehead quote

The Milken Educators we spoke with shared some examples of their AI and ChatGPT classroom activities:

  • Jayda has seventh graders use ChatGPT to generate outlines, identify primary resources, organize citations and gather context for research projects during her weekly “Genius Hour” elective. “Like Google, newspapers and other websites, ChatGPT is another tool they can use to gather information,” she says. Before they begin, Jayda and students discuss the tool’s shortcomings, including unreliable or even false results. “They have to understand that they are responsible for creating the final product,” she says.
  • During a rhetorical analysis unit in her dual-credit college English class at East Hardy High School, Michelle Wolfe (WV ’21) asked students to prompt ChatGPT to write an ode to something about which they felt passionate (one student honored Prime, their favorite hydration drink). The ode had to include devices they had studied, like chiasmus and synecdoche. Students were delighted by the results and showed off the AI-generated poems in a gallery walk. “This was a low-stakes participation activity, but it did help to reinforce the vocabulary” of the unit, says Michelle.
  • For Wade, ChatGPT has been a great jumping-off point to spur student creativity with his fifth graders at Crystal Spring Elementary School in Roanoke. For example, he asked the bot to write the first paragraph of a story about a spacecraft made of cheese, then tasked students with finishing the story. To gauge understanding of the Boston Tea Party, he’s asked ChatGPT to provide the punch line of a joke about the event, then has students write the joke.
  • Wade has prompted ChatGPT to explain the rock cycle and types of rocks on a fifth grade reading level, with a twist: He instructed the bot to include four mistakes. He challenged student thinking by asking them to find the mistakes.
  • Michelle asked her high schoolers to use ChatGPT to decide which character in Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” was primarily responsible for the play’s chaos and devastation. Interestingly, students discovered that while the AI bot’s reasoning was coherent, it actually misquoted Shakespeare’s work when asked to provide evidence for its assertions. “The students still needed to know the play well to produce a well-written and accurate analysis,” notes Michelle.
  • Wade’s fifth graders enjoyed a “Find the Imposter” activity during a lesson on Langston Hughes. The class wrote essays about the significance of Hughes’ poem “Harlem,” while Wade asked ChatGPT to generate several essays on the same topic, including “from the perspective of a 10-year-old” in the prompt. He posted all of the essays anonymously and tasked students with finding the AI examples. “The kids realized that when they’re writing, they should make references to their own experiences,” Wade explains. “The ChatGPT example might be technically correct, but it was empty.” The impact was immediate and meaningful: “They began to distance themselves from voiceless writing. And they learned that they matter, their voice matters, and the universe needs more of them.” Shasta did a similar activity with her seventh graders at Youth Leadership Academy in Pickens, challenging students to distinguish text written by an AI bot from that written by humans.

AI Michelle Wolfe quote

A new tool for coaching and instructional planning

AI can be a productivity tool for teachers, too. An Impact Research survey released last spring showed that more than half of teachers had used ChatGPT for work-related tasks, with 40% saying they used it weekly. According to the survey, educators have been experimenting with AI to streamline and support lesson planning, generating project ideas and researching lesson topics.

Shasta, who is taking on a new role in 2023-24 as an instructional coach, will continue including AI into her work, shifting to helping teachers understand and incorporate AI tools into their classrooms. During her presentations at UTC, teachers raised both ethical and practical questions that will guide her coaching: Do we need to change our definition of “cheating”? Will we be able to recognize AI-generated work? How do we keep up with the lightning-quick evolution of AI technology and tools?

Wade sees ChatGPT as an important asset in professional conversations with new teachers. ChatGPT can write lesson plans, but they’re not very good — “I’d say C-minus, not the worst, but pretty boring if you’re the student,” he says. Wade suggests using AI lesson plans as a launchpad, perhaps handing bot-generated lesson plans to pre-service or new teachers and asking them to improve them.

“I think AI tools will force teachers of writing to create more meaningful assignments,” says Michelle. In her “Macbeth” unit, the final essay wasn’t actually the most important part: “All the work we’d done leading up to that assessment was where the meaningful learning happened.”

AI Jayda Pugliese quote

“We should be making learning robot-proof”

Some students, of course, will try to push boundaries and pass off AI-created text as their own. One way to discourage that, says Jayda, is to show them exactly how teachers will be checking their work. “I showed them how reverse lookup works and how quickly I was able to identify text as AI-generated,” she says. “They made the connection: ‘No copy and paste.’”

Michelle says some of her students, too, succumbed to the temptation to cut and paste a ChatGPT-generated essay — but it wasn’t hard to spot. “The bot’s writing voice is too formulaic,” she says. “Those essays didn’t score well on my rubric.” One thing she’s planning to have her students do early in the next academic year: work together to establish a classroom code of ethical AI use. And Jayda is working with other principals in her district to create clear AI guidelines for teachers and students. 

“I think AI tools will revolutionize the way we teach,” says Michelle. “But the core of all valuable instruction is timeless. It must be meaningful and relevant to our students.” Agrees Wade: “We should be making teaching and learning robot-proof. We need to give students assignments that can’t be completed just with AI.”

In the end, says Jayda, AI and other technology are a means to what should be every educator’s overall end: teaching critical thinking, creativity, collaboration and communication. “Our role is to build those skills, and assignments need to reflect that,” she says. “A kid can always copy and paste something into an AI generator and get a response, but teachers shouldn’t be assigning things that can be answered that way. We have to give students something that really makes them think.”


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