As they read yet another essay that seems straight from ChatGPT, high school English teachers might be tempted to employ software to catch their students using chatbots. But, before we expend too much energy playing cat-and-mouse with our savvier students, perhaps we can rethink our approach to high school writing assignments. Writing experiences that satisfy adolescents’ yearning for authentic expression can turn ChatGPT into just another tech tool.
I asked ChatGPT to answer the following question about chapter 6 of The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave: “How did Mr. Auld affect Douglass’s desire to learn to read?” In this scene, Douglass discovers that his slaveholder, Mr. Auld, has put an end to the reading lessons that his wife had been giving Douglass. Chat GPT writes:
Mr. Auld was the husband of Douglass's slave owner's sister, and he initially disapproved of Douglass's efforts to learn to read. He believed that slaves should remain uneducated, as he felt that knowledge would make them more rebellious and harder to control.
Despite this opposition, Douglass was determined to learn to read and write. He continued to teach himself in secret, using whatever materials he could find. When Mr. Auld discovered what Douglass was doing, he became even more opposed to his efforts.
However, Douglass's desire to learn was so strong that he found a way to continue his education. He began to trade bread with poor white children in the neighborhood in exchange for reading lessons. This allowed him to continue his studies without Mr. Auld's knowledge.
In the end, Mr. Auld's opposition to Douglass's education only made him more determined to learn. It fueled his desire to be free and to escape the bonds of slavery.
While the accuracy and correct grammar of ChatGPT’s response might result in a decent grade, the sterile analysis would fall completely flat if read aloud in class: Classmates would think–and possibly say–“Yeah—we know all that. What else you got?”
In the 9th and 10th grade Riveting Results program, students are not assigned essay assignments as homework. Instead, students get 15 minutes to respond to a prompt like the one above. Here is what a 10th grader from a Milwaukee school using Riveting Results wrote:
The way that Mr. Auld affected Douglass’s desire to learn to read is because when Mr. Auld told Mrs. Auld to stop teaching him because in the text he says that “A [n-word] should know nothing but to obey his master–to do as he is told” and if she teaches him he would be unfit to be a slave. He would want to pursue a higher goal and would not be of use to him. These words sank deep into Douglass’s heart, so what Mr. Auld dreaded was a slave learning to read and that’s what Douglass wanted.
After Julissa (not her real name) reads her response to the class, her peers identify words that impacted them. One points out that the word “sank” in the last sentence made him feel sad. Another peer says that he got excited when he heard that Auld was “dreading” Douglass learning to read. After class, Julissa’s teacher writes in the margin that the writing had made her simultaneously feel Douglass’ pain and his exhilaration. By showing Julissa specifically how her words struck them, the class instilled in her the sense that her writing mattered. In the next class, when her teacher tells her to go back to that passage and write three additional sentences that explain what she meant by “deep in Douglass’s heart,” Julissa feels like her class is anticipating her response. She digs in.
Regular in-class writing, written in the context of a classroom focused on eliciting each student’s authentic insights, makes writing an experience that adolescents will savor far more than anything ChatGPT can offer.