Course Corrections: How to Be an Even Better Writing Teacher in the Age of ChatGPT

Tom Gammarino
5 min readJan 3, 2023
Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

Last week, I published a piece about my first encounter with AI “plagiarism” as a high school English teacher. Now that the spring semester is about to begin, I thought I’d share some of my developing ideas on how I’m going to adjust my approach to teaching writing.

First off, this tech is here to stay, and it’s only going to improve, so I recommend getting out ahead of it by discussing AI with students on Day One. That way, we don’t give it any more occult appeal than it already has. Besides, we’d be fools not to recognize what a phenomenal partner this sort of technology can be in helping us teach writing as long as we can figure out how to harness its powers properly. I’m thinking I’ll encourage students to experiment with ChatGPT in the following ways:

Brainstorming and outlining: ChatGPT can certainly be useful in the hashing-out-ideas stage. I’ve always given students some time to put their heads together at this point. I’m interested to see how much value they’ll find in adding AI to the mix.

Research: It may not be long before language models like ChatGPT by and large replace Wikipedia and the humble search engine. Currently, ChatGPT still gives out bad information sometimes, so students will need to cross-reference their research, and there’s a lesson in that for sure. Those of us who remember the early days of Wikipedia may remember when it too was prone to misinformation.

Collaboration: I plan to invite students to use ChatGPT in composing their prose, stipulating that they may not accept the first result it spits back at them but must refine those results with the AI until they arrive at something that feels like a genuine collaboration. I will require that students request at least, say, twenty refinements, and that they document these moves in a separate log.

Games: Whenever possible, I like using games to Trojan-horse in some learning while students think they’re just having fun. One way I might do this with AI is to divide students into groups and, using any combination of ChatGPT and their own imaginations, have them compete to see who can come up with the best flash fiction on a given topic. When time’s up, each group will read their entry, and we’ll vote for a winner and discuss why we liked it best and what the creative process was like.

To be clear, I don’t believe the ascent of AI in any way makes the writing skills we teach obsolete. I remind myself why I got into this profession in the first place, and those humanistic values that animated me — things like meaning, morality, critical thinking, logic, beauty — now need reinforcement more than ever. What may need to change is some of the ways teachers choose to allocate their energies even when they’re not directly invoking ChatGPT. For example:

Slow down: Tight deadlines for significant writing projects might tempt students to seek an easy way out, so I’m going to slow things down this semester, giving students enough time to get deeply invested in at least one old-school writing project. I envision myself acting more as coach than teacher as they take their pieces through an exploratory phase and multiple drafts, get feedback from an authentic audience, and ultimately share their work with the class.

Authentic Prompts: I’ve been encouraging students to write more organically my entire career, so I will not grieve the demise of the five-paragraph essay. Nor will I grieve canned, formalist questions about, say, literary symbols in The Great Gatsby. Instead, I think it’s time we learn from the reader-response theorists and fine-tune our prompts to invite students’ authentic voices and lived, embodied experiences of texts into their writing. In theory, at least, these should be unplagiarizable (though I recognize that teachers with many students can’t always be expected to parse what’s true from what isn’t).

Flip the classroom: For years, math teachers have been “flipping” their classrooms — doing “schoolwork” at home and “homework” at school, where the teacher can circulate and offer support. There’s no reason writing teachers can’t do the same. As a bonus, shorter, more focused writing exercises may translate into less focus on quantity and more on quality, and since most writing teachers I know are perpetually caught between their idealism and the imperative to survive under avalanches of paper, that has got to be a win-win.

Close Reading: In a world that will look increasingly like a “forest of symbols” — to borrow a phrase from Baudelaire — it behooves us to cultivate close-reading skills so that students can navigate their way through the semiotic wilderness. To my mind, this includes teaching grammar and mechanics. For years, I have contemplated diagramming sentences with my students the way I was made to do for many years in Catholic school (it’s true many hated it, but I loved it); I may finally make good on that. I’m also considering having students emulate different sentence styles, possibly with the help of an old text called The New Strategy of Style, by Winston Weathers.

Other Modalities: Remember that there are still many ways for students to demonstrate learning that involve writing without manifesting as papers per se: presentations, posters, scripts, videos, graphic adaptations, etc. Yes, some of that will be plagiarizable in theory too, but collaboration with others and some additional skin in the game regarding presentation should reduce the temptation.

Chill with the Grades: Come up with a grading policy that’s humane and you might still convince humans to do the assignments. For example, a contract grading system that asks competence of students if not always excellence and that puts the ball largely in students’ courts with regard to how much work they want to do (and, correspondingly, what grade they hope to earn) has served me well for some years now.

Ideally, many of these points will be moot. Students of the future will want to learn to write because we will have convinced them that it remains the greatest technology for thinking ever devised. In fact, as human writing becomes increasingly unhitched from capitalism, it strikes me that teachers of writing may find themselves regarded less as preparing students for the technocratic workforce than as preparing them to live meaningful, ethical lives–and that’s just fine by me.

This is all very much a work-in-progress. Please feel free to share any ideas you may have on the subject in the comments.

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Tom Gammarino

Tom Gammarino is an author and teacher. He writes about those places where art and science intersect. Learn more at tomgammarino.com