First person: How one teacher thinks AI could help his students

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An empty classroom. (John Coletti/Getty Images)
An empty classroom. (John Coletti/Getty Images)

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Listen: Today's full-hour conversation on ChatGPT.

ChatGPT is one of the most sophisticated AI chat bots ever released. With just a few prompts, it can write almost anything.

Daniel Herman, a high school English teacher in Berkeley, California, has some ideas about how ChatGPT might find its way into his classroom.

DANIEL HERMAN: I started hearing about OpenAI and the thing that was going to be possible where you or I could write two sentences of an article and say, Finish this in my style. And then I guess a couple of weeks into December, I saw that it had been open to the public and I just started playing around with it. And of course, you know, the first place my mind went was some assignments that I give my students every year.

I teach two sections of junior English. And the focus of the spring semester is each student has to choose two books entirely their own choosing, and they work for a couple of months writing this 15-page paper, putting those two books in conversation with each other. And it is, for many students, a real struggle, and there's no place that they can look and SparkNotes to find how those two books go together, because those two books aren't supposed to go together.

So one of the very first things I did was just start throwing pairs of books together. And the fact that the chatbot can give them just a little bit of a nudge in the right direction. Oh, both of these two books are about a person finding their identity or both of these two books are about somebody moving to a new place and trying to trying to survive.

I'll tell you, you know, I'm sitting exactly where I was at that moment. And I'll never forget just my heart started pounding in my chest, just when I realized what this meant. That might make some people uncomfortable, that might feel like cheating. But for the student who is really going to struggle and really maybe never have that moment of spark, the fact that they have this nudge in the right direction and now they have something to look for.

It's very possible that their experience and the learning that's going to be accomplished from that paper is now increased. While I was playing around with ChatGBT, I got a draft from a student and there was a paragraph of eight sentences and it was a mess. And I took that paragraph and I put it into ChatGBT and ChatGBT made it shine. It kept the students' words. It just made them more clear.

... Just as a real sort of moment of candor, writing is really hard. I would say most professional writers aren't good writers.

So for the student to have the opportunity to look at their own writing, which previously I mean, any person who teaches English or teaches writing knows there are many students who you might say, Hey, do you notice why this one is better than that one? And they think maybe or yeah, I see how it's better, but I don't know how to do that.

Maybe this is an opportunity ... to become more conspicuous to your average student. This is where I get to the question of whether there is at least an element of what it offers us. ... Really like the invention of the calculator. Because I start teaching the students and I notice they don't use apostrophes in their writing.

They don't use them for contractions. They don't use them to show possession. And throughout the year or two years, I might continually remind the students that, Oh, this is why you need apostrophes. And hopefully by the time you know, our time together is up, they have learned that lesson. But to be honest, that is not always the case.

If there is now a machine that can not only put apostrophes exactly where they need to be, but also rather than me having to explain to a student what a comma splice is and why you need a semicolon here. Because it's two independent clauses. If it just changes this arbitrary shape to that arbitrary shape and we don't need to think about that anymore. That feels, I don't know, it feels like a win-win for the student and for the teacher.

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