The integration of AI tools in English language arts (ELA) instruction has emerged as a potentially transformative pedagogical approach that could redefine the traditional landscape of education. Tools, such as AI-powered writing assistants and language-analysis platforms, offer real-time feedback and aim to empower students to engage in self-directed learning and refine their writing and editing skills. By providing instant insight into grammar, readability and organization, AI tools could free teachers from time-consuming manual grading, allowing them to focus on personalized instruction and targeted interventions. Moreover, the use of AI encourages students to view writing as an iterative and interactive process rather than a linear task of writing a draft and making a few edits.
As educators navigate the responsible use of AI in classrooms, AI tools could give students more opportunities to practice writing than they would have in the absence of such tools, which could lead to more advanced skills in communication and expression, enabling them to thrive in an increasingly technology-driven world.
Recently, EdSurge spoke with Molly Castner, a middle school ELA teacher who, intrigued by the prospect of providing real-time feedback to students and fostering critical thinking, embraced the integration of AI in her classroom.
EdSurge: At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, you piloted a multifaceted AI program to support the teaching of argumentative writing. What initially sparked your interest in exploring and implementing AI tools in your classroom?
Castner: I started using Project Topeka prior to the pandemic as part of a pilot program. I was drawn to using AI for several reasons, one being that when students are writing, it is extremely difficult to provide helpful feedback in real time. Teachers who have 100+ students on their class roll cannot possibly give every student the feedback they need, so when the opportunity arose to try to provide that feedback, I jumped at the chance. The topics provided by the AI tool were engaging for students. The tool offered several topic options, allowing me the ability to present students with more choices and encouraging them to have more agency in the writing assignment. Further, the use of AI facilitated discussions about research and citation and provided students with an opportunity to use the tool as they wished during the writing process. After the assignment, students also engaged in a thoughtful critique of the tool, including how they perceived the benefits and drawbacks of AI in evaluating their work.
Have you observed any areas where you believe AI tools could make a significant impact in teaching secondary English?
Students who use tools like Topeka engage in analyzing their writing in real time in ways that a teacher sitting with them one-on-one might do. Students who may never have paused to reflect and consider their writing can now do so at the touch of a button. This helps students see that writing is not a finite process but one that needs to be developed as the writing continues through revision. To me, the AI that is currently being developed is to English teachers what the calculator was to math teachers during the age of the slide rule. It’s not something to fear but to strive to understand as students start to find ways to include AI to make their thinking and writing stronger. We need to help students move from “How can I use this to do the least work possible?” to “How can I use this to improve not only my thinking and understanding but also the thinking and understanding of others?”
How have you communicated the purpose of AI tools to your students? In what ways can you help your students understand AI literacy to accompany their use of these tools?
Last year I noticed that students were starting to use ChatGPT to answer their Think Questions, which are short writing prompts. These prompts require evidence and reasoning in a four or five sentence response. One student submitted multiple paragraphs in a different voice from their own and with no evidence from the text. At times the answers didn’t really address the prompts, so I did some further investigation and concluded that ChatGPT had manufactured the responses. To address this issue with my classes, I created a slide presentation to discuss how even though you can use AI to help you get started — or if you get stuck — it doesn’t replace your own critical thinking skills. You should never give up your voice and replace it with AI. You are still a thinking and feeling human being!
What excites you the most about using AI tools to support teaching English?
I’m most excited by the prospect that students will be able to grow as critical thinkers and writers by using these tools to understand how to communicate better. They have a chance to, in seconds, access more and more information and resources than ever before. For instance, it would take me hours to give students the feedback that grammar programs now provide in seconds. The AI can read for tone and readability in ways I could never hope to do in my limited time as a teacher. Instead of never getting that feedback, students can now understand grammar, usage, mechanics and readability, and I can fine-tune my feedback to those parts of writing that are more nuanced: a compelling claim, convincing evidence properly cited and thorough reasoning.
Based on your experience, were there any drawbacks or challenges that you would give other teachers a heads-up about as they begin trying AI tools? How did you navigate those drawbacks or challenges in your own work?
There were times when the AI feedback was difficult for students to interpret. The AI gave students a very general idea of what to work on that was too abstract for struggling writers. I navigated this with students by engaging them in conversation about what the AI was pointing out and used it as a teachable moment to help students improve their writing. We took something that was confusing and perceived as useless by the students and worked through the struggle to make it meaningful. I gave them permission to question the technology as well. Students received a score based on various criteria, but that was never the final score for the assignment. I gave them the opportunity to talk with me about the score they felt they earned and why AI might have arrived at a different conclusion. The instant feedback of AI made students more engaged in evaluating and revising their work. It also allowed me as the teacher to have more one-on-one conversations and conferences necessary for student growth.
We should not fear the arrival of new technologies. Instead, we should model engagement with the developing AI and show students how it might help them. We will never keep it away from our students, so we should instead show them how to use the tools responsibly. If you are using ChatGPT, for example, that’s fine, but how do you cite your work so that you are being transparent about the ideas that are yours and the ideas that are not?
I think it’s important to show students we don’t know everything, but we are willing to grow and learn alongside them, even when that learning is challenging.