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  • Writer's pictureScott Cameron

Man vs. Machine: AI and ELA

AI is all the buzz lately. No need to teach writing anymore, a computer can do it. In all seriousness, if you’ve tried typing in a prompt or question with some simple commands, the results are scary. But this is a battle we’ve been fighting for a long time. In fact, I just wrote about how to avoid plagiarism recently.

T.S. Eliot made the argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”: you have to read all the dead poets to be a truly creative poet. We’re constantly improving on the ideas of the past and thinking about the ways we can imagine the next best idea or story. Like any technology, AI will have pros and cons. It’s easy to get down about all the negatives of technology: it pulls kids away from real life interactions, and reading and listening for long periods of time. But it pushes humanity to be the captain of the ship. No one stopped playing chess or learning how to add simply because computers could do it too. In Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, Gulliver encounters scientists that think they can get to the truth of everything by spinning large blocks of letters on a grid to make as many letter, word, and sentence combinations as possible. They just have to keep spinning and then eventually, they will know it all. Meanwhile, they could spend their time reading the brilliant minds of history, having good, deep conversations, and finding actionable solutions for the greater good.

Our approach won’t change. We’ll still ask kids to produce short films, adaptations, and video essays, record podcasts, present in front of the class, discuss in groups and report back on their conversation, write personal and fictional stories and poems, create mind maps, sketchnotes, and graphic or handwritten posters, and yes, write short essays on literature in one class period, sometimes using a computer and sometimes using a pencil and paper. The teaching of writing will always involve practicing thesis statements, topic sentences, body paragraphs, the analysis of evidence or quotations, and most importantly, the conclusion, the time when a writer takes their arguments and evidence and makes them relevant and meaningful. It’s the moment the writer tells us what to do with the evidence they presented and how it connects to current events, personal experiences, or art.

It's better to talk about the importance of thinking for yourself, what it means to be creative, and expressing a sense of self than it is to threaten students with consequences. If we have conversations about what they want to write about and focus on the process of writing, it is less likely that they will look somewhere else for answers. There will always be a few students (and adults) that want to cheat the system and skip the real work that leads to an original idea (or success), so there’s no reason to change the whole system for the minority. The best thing we can do is what we’ve always done: make writing, reading, listening, speaking, and creating visuals enjoyable. We should be constantly connecting literature to real stories and experiences, and the news of the day. If we do that, plugging in a question to a machine should make students feel like a machine. If we give students the opportunity to read and think about great literature and the opportunity to explore topics of choice online by watching videos, listening to podcasts, reading quality essays and articles, and thinking about the images of our world, they will have no interest in interacting with a robot.

Scott Cameron

English language arts teacher

Teacher's Workshop, professional development for secondary ELA teachers

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