I’m writing this for all the exhausted educators out there who needed ChatGPT‘s release like they need a burst pipe or an icy road.
I write this for teachers wondering whether essay prompts they’ve worked hard to design–are designing right now on their holiday break–have a chance in an AI-powered world. One where kids of all ages can enter an essay prompt and in seconds, presto–>voilà–>print!
I write this for folks affiliated with colleges, college applications, and universities.
For the students beginning a college essay, soon.
A few of us (maybe a lot of us) are feeling a little stressed right now.
I think especially of the educator paid under $50K a year to work a 60+-hour week, who’s trying every day to make magic for her students, and along comes some guys in San Francisco with a cool little startup car that they just tossed onto the school playground. Saying, “Have at it, kids! Let’s see what happens!”
Teacher (glancing over her shoulder in the 2.5 seconds’ worth of time she’s got to look away from her students): “Um, what? Are you going to…help with this?”
OpenAI: “Who, me? Oh, I’m too busy coding and exploding things to babysit your kids!”
The stakes here are about already-unjust systems we live in and the expectation to move faster, faster, faster in reaction to someone else’s decision.
Underpaid teachers already working overtime and needing to suddenly pivot and somehow be super creative on the fly. (I see some saying, “We just need a universal basic income. The machines will work for us and we will get enough cash to survive so we can manage them. Okay, cool. Um, when’s that happening again, as the first jobs are taken?) During a pandemic.
For administrators trying to update school handbooks, websites, policies, and inform the whole community–while facing feedback, backlash, and commentary from every angle. During a pandemic.
Parents trying to figure out how to advise their teens, while also trying to make a living and raise their kids. Did I say, “during a pandemic”?
Teens trying to applying to college and figure out what to do with this tool when their friend is already trying it, while also feeling a ton of stress about the current process.
College staff as admission readers trying to process applications and wondering whether ChatGPT is the real brain behind the curtain.
For me, artist and author, educator and coach, who could see every thing she does today gone someday. And who is kind of sick of So. Much. Change in the last two years. Really? Another pivot?
Yeah, my first reaction is not exactly, “Cool!”
Why I Write
I write when I’m nervous, and I write when I seek a sort of faith. I write to make things new, to teach, to learn, to make things better, and make myself laugh.
Why do you write?
(No idea what ChatGPT is? Check out this article from The New York Times.)
I’ve Tried Some Tech-y Things
I’m a teacher who’s embraced a ton of tech trends. It’s fair to say I’ve often been on the cutting (bleeding?) edge in nonprofits and schools. I taught and designed some of the first online courses for gifted youth, which I’d already moved from workbooks to CD-ROMs. I joined the first school in North Carolina with 1-to-1 computing, and before that, integrated Netscape into curriculum as early as 1996. In online education, I embraced Blackboard and Sakai and Moodle and Canvas and Padlet and Voki and Trello and Airtable and Slack and yeah I could keep going. I live entirely in G-Suite or whatever they’ll call it next, having begun my career with notebooks, file cabinets, and ditto machines. And I’ve been experimenting lately with ChatGPT.
I’ve often asked for forgiveness before permission or funding was secured. Innovation first, to a fault sometimes. Sometimes it was in a race to serve students with the next big thing, and other times, a race simply to be smart enough, caught up enough, plugged in enough.
Yes. Plugged in shall do nicely for our metaphors here.
I know for sure this innovation is going to spur me to be an even better author, educator, and coach. I’ll grow for sure. The question I’d just like to ask our hyper-speed world is, “How fast and high are you asking us to jump, today?”
Wouldn’t It Be Nice?
The humans who released ChatGPT might have been more thoughtful of our underserved, overwhelmed, and underfunded educators before they let this new thing wander our wilderness. OpenAI might have thought about bringing in K-12 teachers for a conversation.
What if OpenAI offered round tables while conceptualizing and designing, trusting teachers, philosophers, and artists for their input? What if someone finds some funding now to give educators and other experts and professionals space and time to be part of this exploration?
Wouldn’t it have been nice if ChatGPT had given us all a heads up and let us breathe into this innovation, with staggered releases to some populations who could test it? College faculties and admissions officers, too? Before they unleashed to everyone as it is now–unsupervised?
(Yes, I do have a stake in this. Not only am I a college essay consultant, and an editor, but I’m also an author. ChatGPT is looking at every one of these professions and licking its mechanical chops. Like these robodogs. Ugh. And yes, I see the irony as I, perennial forgetter of the permissions process, lambast them for unleashing ChatGPT without bringing educators in.)
I’m also recalling what it meant to give teens a mobile phone with uncurated internet and social media access back in the day. I wrote a whole novel, @nervesofsteel, releasing in April 2023, that captures those early days of social media–what I saw happen, in my own time and yes, on my watch. I saw many minds of my Gen X generation blown by the revelations of where kids were suddenly roaming in those wilds of the Interwebs, at 3am, in the biggest park on Earth…
I know that OpenAI has done some delayed and protected releases, but what if they’d released a watermark or a gatekeeper that educators could use, today, for fighting plagiarism, before the machine appeared on our students’ scenes?
You know, kind of like thinking about red lights and stop signs before putting a brand-new vehicle out there that doesn’t seem to have boundaries?
Or as The Fork folks said the other day with one of their interviewees, letting loose an “invasive species”?
But never mind. It’s too late.
Again, however much or little you personally care about racism or hotwiring cars or meth, please consider that, in general, perhaps it is a bad thing that the world’s leading AI companies cannot control their AIs. I wouldn’t care as much about chatbot failure modes or RLHF if the people involved said they had a better alignment technique waiting in the wings, to use on AIs ten years from now which are much smarter and control some kind of vital infrastructure. But I’ve talked to these people and they freely admit they do not.“Perhaps It Is a Bad Thing that the World’s Leading AI Companies Cannot Control Their AIs” -Astral Codex Ten
[Since this post was first written, Edward Tian developed an app to detect whether an essay was written by ChatGPT.]
I Know: What Was, Wasn’t Perfect
I hope that only a small percentage of K-12 students have or will start using ChatGPT to write their papers and college application essays. There was one college student bragging about using ChatGPT to write essays and then selling them, but I couldn’t bear to hang around his social media sphere too long.
I also realize that there are many essay prompts that aren’t frankly worth doing. The five-paragraph essay as a recipe is stale and lifeless in many of its iterations. Maybe that’s why the machine takes so well to it. Rinse and repeat. As the saying goes: Say what you’re gonna say, say it, then say you said it…
I’ve always been a mix of creative and practical in my design of writing prompts. My rubric is this:
- am I prepping kids for the future?
- am I giving them something meaningful and relevant to their lives?
- are we all better for having done this?
So what is meaningful and relevant now? What’s better now?
The Common App essays, for one. More on that later.
You Know You’re Human If…
To be human is not to be faster, more powerful, more fuel efficient. It’s not about being the most productive version on the market. That version yields money, yes, and some security. But a deep sense of fulfillment? Spiritual renewal and enlightenment? Nah. Every time I’ve put my nose to the grindstone and whipped myself for not being more of a good machine, I’m only more miserable.
Too often I’ve bought right into the factory-made model and lie of what Lyn can be. I’m a genuine, made-in-the-USA human, raised to be faster and better, a more perfect version, with each annual release. So the training and habits are there, the wheels and cogs right in place…but with age and wisdom comes the good sense that I need a really deep breath.
The issues I’ve had with certain folks and certain institutions is when people refuse to see me or others as fully human, demanding we be 1.0 above our current version for the sake of the system. Their condemnation always put rules, roles, hierarchy, or efficiency first. Letter versus spirit.
(Which is funny, really, considering what a fast talker, fast adapter, and fast innovator I am, often to a fault. I didn’t breathe enough and still don’t. I’m such a good systems player, you would think I’d latch nicely into the cogs and gears a bit better…)
And now there’s a machine that can be another rubric or judge, and I guess if this system is all about winning, one has to wonder who’s got the best odds.
To be human is what, again? (Breathe.)
To be human is to speak, rage, and sing with a certain volume, timbre, and tenor of voice.
To be human is to work tirelessly after a purpose that illuminates your being, that gives joy to your days.
To be human is to be random, and impulsive, and counter culture, and reactive, and irrational. (Some might call that emotional.)
To have blurry edges. To resist labels.
To seek fairness, justice, equity. To reform.
To be human is to play and explore and discover.
To be spiritual. Magical.
Let’s talk about writing tasks that do just that.
For Students Writing, Right Now
No matter how nerve-wracking this writing process is, I know you want to find your right fit. And if you are truly yourself, as you are now (but yeah, sprucing up a wee bit for what’s also a business-casual job interview), then ideally, you’re bringing your voice, heart, and values to the essays you write so you will match with that just-right college.
So ask yourself these questions
- What’s my writing voice? Does this essay sound like me talking to admission officers?
- What are my values, interests, and skills (College Essay Guy) that are “soul stuff” or shall we say “sentient stuff”?
- Am I leaving myself on the page? Does my persona pop? Or do I sound like any other bot? (Because honestly, the bots are, in my mind, still pretty detectable and generic, even though they are getting better.)
No matter what role will writers of the future have, as revisers of bots’ creations and revisers of prompts, it matters that you can write meaningful content and with accessible, intriguing voice.
Writing Tasks That Are Better Than Bots
I’ve started a designer’s conversation with myself and welcome others to it. Why do we write? What should writing be? What values should drive what we create?
How do we write today’s essay prompts, knowing ChatGPT is out and about and roaming?
How do we design writing prompts that matter?
AI-Proof Essays? Here’s a Handout
I recently created a new handout for Teaching Macbeth: A Differentiated Approach. I added it to the online resources as a bonus handout since ChatGPT’s release, hoping it might assist in conversations already started and prompts under design.
I’ll keep adding to it. Send me a note if you’ve got some good ideas. Not to be binary, but it’s me working for and against the AI.
What do essay prompt designers and curriculum designers do in the future with AI here and able to write prompts? What do students do when AI can write for them? What’s our what and our why behind any design or any work?
College Essay Guy has a mission of bringing more Joy, Purpose, and Ease to the writing process. I’d like to take a cue from their mission because it’s a succinct way of capturing what’s fueled my greatest creativity with students.
Author and author-preneur Joanna Penn is excited about the potentiality of us partnering with machines. The prompt generation we can do as creatives has her mind exploding with possibilities. The ability to write more, faster, and better is on her mind.
When she mentioned how she has so many ideas, but not enough time to write these books, I truly related. I’ve written seven books, but it only feels like I’ve scratched the surface of my potential. I love her futurist take–and I really do want to reside there, in a positive space–but my educator self is not quite dancing yet in a landscape dominated by OpenAI’s choices.
By the way, I love words like “handout.” We can always join hands and turn off the machines occasionally. Can’t we?
I’ve got one solution already. Make real-time class worthy of writing about. Significant in its experience such that it leads to intriguing writing better done by us.
Which leads to the designer question: How can we create meaningful classroom experiences that lead to deep, exciting, and compelling reflection, argumentation, and problem solving?
Whether we were role playing how to get along in this world (thank you, Dan Mindich’s Ada Valley simulation), or performing The Ramayana, or designing metaphor posters, my students and I have found the most joy in making new things that matter, that they will remember. Activities that will give them greater confidence to express themselves happily, authentically, and clearly. (Joy, purpose, ease, anyone?)
When I did the Ada Valley role play as part of my English curriculum with students in California and North Carolina, they had to strategize, adapt, and experiment. As members of what Dan described as “three ethnic groups: an indigenous group, well established settlers, and a new immigrant group,” they played these roles in real time. As they figured out how to communicate across cultures invented for the simulation, they solved problems together. They had to recall what happened as eye witnesses in the writing they did afterwards. They had to come to conclusions.
Suffice it to say, students learned a lot–their teachers included.
No bots were in attendance at these UN meetings, or used in the creation of that writing. Nor will they be–at least, maybe not in 2023.
It’s Not Too Late
I just changed my mind during the writing of this post (can a bot do that?): OpenAI, I invite you to shut the tool down and do the round table thing I propose here.
Why not? Why not let us all take a lap, and breathe?
What’s more important now–the tool learning, or us figuring out what the heck is going on? As humans, together?
I also invite OpenAI to provide a bot-checking tool and watermarking system that works.
Because to be honest, the Common App prompts are meaningful, full of purpose, chances for self-awareness: opportunities to discover insight and truth. Memoir–description, argumentation, reflection–is a worthy enterprise. It’s part of the fully-human way of being: to stop every once in a while, ruminate, stretch, learn, grow.
Machines improve. People grow.
A mentor in my early teaching years, Brenda, had students write what she called “mini-meditations.” I believe that the short-form, reflective essay is always going to be good for the soul.
The time I took to write my grad school application essay, at age 51, for Vermont College of Fine Arts, was worth every moment. Every struggling revision, I grew a bit more. I’d still revise it to this day. But lucky for me, I got my zeal and joy for writing across to the admissions committee.
The experience of writing “Gramma’s Day,” a memoir piece I wrote for STANFORD Magazine, comparing my life to my maternal grandmother’s? Powerful. Yet again, I grew.
Why in the world would we offload that experience to a machine?
But hey, if you’re 17 and your brains are still building, and impulse control and time and pressures being what they are, yes, you might just skip that experience in favor of something more pleasurable in the moment.
Or for some advantage in yes, a less-than-fair system, so you can potentially accelerate to a place where you would–what?–just keep using the bot instead of doing the college work?
What here is true, noble, or right in this situation? What is pure, lovely, admirable? What here would be most excellent or praiseworthy? OpenAI, shall we think about such things?*
“The idea that a student feels like they need to use an AI chatbot to write their essay is concerning, not only because the output will be inauthentic and unoriginal—and therefore not as good as their own work—but also because a student feels as if they need to use it,” Common App president and CEO Jenny Rickard said in a statement. “Some of the most impactful and memorable college essays I read as an admission dean touched on personal experiences and perspectives that were uniquely important to the student and conveyed their voice. [ChatGPT’s] essay is certainly not one of them.”“A Computer Can Now Write A College Essay–Maybe Better Than You Can” (Emma Whitford, Forbes)
I also wish all college admissions officers, application portal folks, college counselors, and college essay coaches the best as we wrangle in 2023 with what OpenAI hath wrought.
Here are questions that the chat bot is asking us to consider sooner, rather than later.
Questions for an Educator Round Table Conversation
What sort of writing tasks might bring us humans joy, justice, and peace?
How can we design prompts that elicit more human voice as we write? How might writing sound more like us and less like a recipe a machine can follow?
How can we design prompts that create deeper human connections?
How can we design prompts that allow a person to make something brand new to them, and perhaps to others? That gives them joy in the making, and joy, justice, and peace to others?
After reading the thoughts of experts like Lawson and Blume on ChatGPT (see below), I feel my mind spin with all the human possibilities of a writing prompt.
(For the record, I got 9/10 right on the NYT quiz where you’re asked to spot the bot. I could tell the kid versus the machine almost every time. But then again, I’ve been reading student work pretty closely since 1989, and I can usually tell you when a person is behind the page.)
This quote below has my mind whirring, gyrating, grinding…Or should I say, sparking? Floating? Communing with the muses?
I don’t know what’s more human of a phrasing, but maybe next time, I won’t use a machine metaphor.
Voice and Revision Magic
If the chatbot can write a basic elementary or middle-school-level essay, teachers could spend less time on how to capitalize or form paragraphs. Instead, they could focus on the power of language and syntax to make an audience think or feel, she said, by using more vivid verbs or varying the lengths of sentences, for example.
Ms. Lawson often uses writing samples to invite her fourth graders to compare and contrast what works well and what doesn’t. She said she could imagine, for example, asking the chatbot to produce the same essay at different writing levels, and then “kids could look at different prompts and analyze those,” improving their own writing in the process.
The bot could also be used as a way to practice revision, something few teachers have time to do in depth now, they said. Ms. Blume said she’s tried to convince children that rewriting is the best part of the process — she does it at least five times for her own writing — but “they hate to be told they have to, as they call it, do their story again.”
If the chatbot could produce an essay akin to a first draft, she said, students asked to build on it could see how rewriting gives them the chance to make it their own.
“You get the pieces of the puzzle, then you put the puzzle together, then you get to color it in,” she said. “And that’s how it grows, and that’s what makes it better and even more fun.”Did a Fourth Grader Write This? Or the New Chatbot? (The New York Times)
Further Reading and Resources
Bonus Handout, Teaching Macbeth: A Differentiated Approach – an experiment in working with and against the AI.
For a regularly updated and enhanced handout, weekly on Teachers Pay Teachers, go here.
“Me and the Machine: How Will We Make This Work?”
“Is It Plagiarism to Use ChatGPT for My College Essay?”
“The Future of the High School Essay: We Talk to 4 Teachers, 2 Experts and 1 AI Chatbot” – The74
Can you spot the bot? (NYT quiz using fourth graders’ writing mixed with AI’s writing)
“ChatGPT and other chatbots are a code red for Google Search”
“ChatGPT will end High School English”
“Breaking News: ChatGPT Breaks Higher Ed” (learning resources)
“The Future of the High School Essay: We Talk to 4 Teachers, 2 Experts and 1 AI Chatbot”
“Teachers Weigh In on How to Manage the New AI Chatbot“
“Don’t Ban ChatGPT. Use it as a Teaching Tool.”
“New York City Schools Ban ChatGPT to Head Off a Cheating Epidemic.”
“A College Student Created an App to Detect If Essays Were Written by ChatGPT.”
“The Return of the Crawling Evil,’ a Lovecraftian Sci-Fi Story written and Illustrated by Robots.”
“Could an AI Chatbot Rewrite My Novel?”
An experiment: Lyn has AI write a supplemental college essay for Occidental College’s application while also snarking at the chat bot.
“Co-Writing AI with Generative AI”
“Teaching Students to Write with AI: The SPACE Framework”
“Teachers desperate for help over AI chatbot writing entire essays for students” – Daily Mirror
“Can Chat GPT Make This Podcast?” – NYT’s The Fork. Questions for the future and samples of AI writing
Darren Hudson Hick’s December 15, 2022 post – a professor’s take on things and what admin should do
“Why I’m Done Using and Boosting AI Art” and “Eat Shit, Robots! (Or: “No, The Absolute Intrusion of Artificial Intelligence Is Not Inevitable)” – Chuck Wendig speaks his mind on what art means and what AI means for art
“AI Could Be Great for College Essays” – Daniel Lametti, Slate.com
“Perhaps It Is a Bad Thing that the World’s Leading AI Companies Cannot Control Their AIs” – Astral Codex Ten
Joanna Penn’s AI articles and podcasts – how creatives can harness the power of AI
“How to ‘Show Don’t Tell’ in College Essays” – Lyn Fairchild Hawks, College Essay Guy – my take on what makes unique writing for the college application essays
Practical Coaching Strategies for the Average Student Writer (College Essay Guy Mini-Course) – my course with tons of exercises for helping students find their unique details, find insight, and revise deeply
*”Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”– Philippians 4:8
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