Introducing 9th graders to ChatGPT

First of all, most of my 9th graders have already met ChatGPT, so for most of them this tool was not new, but together we used it in new ways.  

Back story 

We are working on a comparative analysis essay based on art my students viewed in our student art gallery. I've done this project very successfully in every year the art gallery wasn't closed due to a pandemic. I've blogged about the project here before. Resources and directions are there if you are looking for a generative AI proof writing assignment, and you happen to have some student art around. 

The ChatGPT Lesson

To begin with, I asked my students if ChatGPT could write this art essay for them. I didn't explain what ChatGPT was. I wanted to see how they would respond without any other information. At first the question made them nervous. 

Then a brave soul spoke up, "No, because the ChatGPT hasn't seen the art we are writing about."

"Exactly," I said with a gleam in my eye, "You will need to write your own essay because the robot can't write it for you. It's almost like I planned it that way."

Nervous laughter from my class. 

"But," I continued, "ChatGPT could probably still be helpful. Any ideas how?"

Blank stares. 

Then, I opened a tab for ChatGPT on my computer and described what we were doing. 

Prompt to Chat GPT: I need to write an essay comparing two pieces of student art. I need to write about their description, symbolism, mood, and theme. I also have to make a judgement about which piece of art does a better job communicating its message. Can you suggest an outline for my essay? 

The AI chatbot promptly responded with a lovely outline. My students and I looked it over and agreed it would be helpful. I copied and pasted the outline into their Canvas assignment, so they could use it for reference. (Notice, I'm the only one using ChatGPT here, my students get to use the resulting outline because I added it to their assignment in Canvas, our LMS.)

Then, I went a step further and asked ChatGPT for an example of what the first paragraph would look like using two famous pieces of art. To be clear, I often give my students model texts like this. Need to write a character analysis for a book we are reading? Here is a character analysis from a book we read last semester you can use as an example. So, asking an AI chatbot for a model paragraph is right in line with my teaching practice. 

The robot quickly spit out a paragraph comparing the Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci and Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh. My students and I took a look at it, to see if it was a good model to follow. It mostly was, until we got to the thesis statement. The robot wrote, "In this essay, I will compare and contrast these two masterpieces, examining their description, symbolism, mood, and theme, and I will argue which artwork does a better job of communicating its message." 

My students and I agreed that was the worst thesis statement it could have written. It does not take a position about the art, and it starts with "in this essay," a phrase my students know is forbidden. They could see that if they tried to use something that bad as a thesis statement in their own writing, it would not go well. 

More Back Story: 

I regularly have my students contribute text evidence through a Google form when we are about to write an essay about a book or a short story. I publish that evidence back to them as a spreadsheet and that way they have a bank of evidence to choose from to include in their writing. But, I tell them, that all of this evidence was suggested by their classmates, and 9th graders make mistakes. It is up to them to make sure the evidence they choose is right for their essay. In other words, my students are used to being told that a resource is not necessarily reliable. So they are not surprised that they have to treat AI responses with some skepticism.

Why are you teaching students how to use ChatGPT? 

My students won't be in school much longer. ChatGPT and other generative AI tools are part of the world they will live in. They need to know what these tools can and can't do. They need to understand the importance of critically reading the output of any generative AI tool. I believe that students who are knowledgeable about and comfortable using tools like ChatGPT and whatever comes next, will have an advantage after high school. 

The advantage always goes to those who have access to the tool and a purposeful reason to use it.

I am not by any means suggesting students do not need to learn to write. Over and over when I use ChatGPT with students they see that having a high level of knowledge and experience themselves is critical to using the AI well. My seniors have seen it spit out factually incorrect information about an article they read. My 9th graders have seen it write poorly and invent facts about the novel we finished recently. 

When I teach my students how to ask the AI for help, I emphasize that they should write a prompt that paraphrases the assignment directions in their own words. This means my students have to actually read and understand the assignment directions. I show them how just pasting in the assignment directions gets poor results. 

For my students with IEPs being able to ask the AI for a list of steps to accomplish a task, or a time management plan for a project, is hugely helpful. My advanced students like asking for suggested further readings on a topic. And everyone can use a little help with an outline. 

After some writing time: 

Once my 9th graders had spent about 15 minutes working on their essays, I asked if any of them might be willing to let me show ChatGPT their first paragraph and ask for feedback. A few volunteered. They were writing in their English Journal Google docs, so I could open their writing and copy the paragraph to ChatGPT. 

The response was at first generic writing advice about adding a hook, but then it got more specific about what the student had already written. As a class we looked over the advice about specificity and adding details, and decided which parts were valuable. Many students made some first paragraph revisions based on the feedback to one student. I emphasized that getting feedback and revising your writing yourself was a good way to learn to write better and it would keep your writing from being flagged by an AI detector. 

The overall message to my students is, you can absolutely use ChatGPT to help you write better, just like you use spelling and grammar checkers, but YOU still need to do your own writing, both for your own learning, and to avoid any accusations of cheating. 

I'm also not asking my students to use ChatGPT. That is not an expectation. I showed them how I use it, but whether they choose to use it or not is entirely up to them.