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Fort Worth English Teachers See Opportunity in ChatGPT

Some school districts have already blocked access to the AI chatbot ChatGPT for its potential to facilitate academic dishonesty, but some English teachers say it might still become a useful part of the writing process.

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(TNS) — A large and growing number of school districts nationwide are blocking access to ChatGPT, a new artificial intelligence-based writing program that can write nearly anything in seconds, including poetry, computer code — or homework assignments.

But English teachers in the Fort Worth Independent School District say that while they’re concerned about how students could use ChatGPT, they aren’t sure that banning the program outright is the right move.

Meanwhile, an expert on writing instruction says the program could present an opportunity for schools to rethink how they teach students to write.

“If a computer is able to produce a pretty good essay based on a single prompt, is that a good intellectual product to strive for?” said Debra McKeown, a professor in the School of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University in College Station.


ChatGPT was unveiled last November by the San Francisco-based tech firm OpenAI. The chatbot can generate texts in any number of genres in response to a prompt from the user. It can write a Shakespearean sonnet about fresh peaches, instructions for putting together Ikea furniture or a five-paragraph essay on the use of imagery in the Ernest Hemingway novel “The Old Man and the Sea.”

Students can also use the program to help them come up with ideas for their own writing. When asked to generate a list of essay ideas on poet Langston Hughes, ChatGPT produced 10 ideas that could easily serve as a jumping-off point for a homework assignment, including an analysis of Hughes’ use of jazz and blues in his poetry and how it reflected the African-American experience of his era, as well as an examination of Hughes’ role in the Harlem Renaissance and his impact on African-American literature.

Last week, researchers at the University of Minnesota Law School released a study in which they asked the chatbot to produce answers for tests in four graduate-level courses. Although the program’s performance was “uneven at best,” they concluded that the chatbot passed the courses, with a C+ average across all four classes — an outcome that would earn a student credit toward a law degree, but likely place them on academic probation, researchers said. But they noted that a student who consistently performed at that level would likely end up graduating with a degree.

While ChatGPT can produce remarkably human-like answers to queries, it isn’t without limitations. By its own admission, the chatbot struggles with creative tasks. When prompted to produce a list of its own shortcomings, the program wrote that it “is able to generate creative text and come up with new ideas, but it struggles with tasks that require a high level of creativity and imagination.”

A disclaimer on the company’s website also warns users that the program sometimes returns answers that sound plausible, but are inaccurate. Notably, when asked to produce a recipe for Texas chili, ChatGPT generated a recipe that called for one 15-ounce can of kidney beans. The program also noted that Texas chili is typically made with beef and no beans, and encouraged the reader to adapt the recipe according to personal preference.


On Dec. 12, about two weeks after the program was unveiled, the Los Angeles Unified School District announced it would block access to ChatGPT on all district-owned devices and networks. The New York City Department of Education, the largest school district in the country, followed suit in early January. Campus leaders in New York can request to have access to the program at a specific school or site. In a statement, Jenna Lyle, a spokeswoman for the district, said New York school officials made the move out of concern about how the program affects student learning, and also the safety and accuracy of the information it generates.

“While the tool may be able to provide quick and easy answers to questions, it does not build critical-thinking and problem-solving skills, which are essential for academic and lifelong success,” Lyle said.

Since then, several other large districts have blocked the program on their networks, including Seattle, Fairfax County, Virginia; and Montgomery County, Alabama.

So far, officials in Fort Worth ISD have no plans to do the same, said Claudia Garibay, a spokeswoman for the district. District officials haven’t gotten any reports of any issues related to ChatGPT, she said.


Michael Sanks, an English teacher at Western Hills High School in Fort Worth ISD, said he thinks the program has the potential to be a problem. But at the same time, he said, new technologies have presented similar problems for decades, and teachers have always found a way to counterbalance them.

For example, the same search engines that connect students with nearly all the knowledge in the world can also give them easy access to pre-written essays and papers on any number of topics. So teachers started using plagiarism detector programs like Turnitin, which checks essays students submit against a database of essays found online to look for matching text.

Sanks said he hadn’t seen any students using ChatGPT to write their assignments so far. But after reading about the program and its capabilities, he understands why some districts are moving to block access to it. But he also thinks that schools sometimes respond too quickly to new technology before they understand what legitimate uses it could have for students. He thinks it’s too soon to say whether banning the program is the right move.

If one of Sanks’ students started using ChatGPT to write every assignment at the beginning of a school year, he isn’t sure he’d be able to tell, since he would have no experience with that student’s writing. But if one of them started using it in January, midway through the school year, he said he would have no trouble spotting it. By this point, he’s familiar enough with his students’ writing that it would be noticeable if a student who was struggling started producing higher-quality work overnight, he said.

“If a kid turned in graduate-level work tomorrow … some alarm bells would go off,” he said.


Joe Uhler, the speech and debate coach at Western Hills, said he could see the program being beneficial for students who are writing passages for an event at a speech tournament. Many tournaments include an event called original oratory. As the name implies, the event requires that students write the passages they present themselves. While students couldn’t use an AI program to write an oratory and then present it as their own work, they might use it to help them learn how to structure a speech, and then use that structure to formulate their own ideas, he said.

Uhler, who also teaches English at Western Hills, said he could imagine students using the program the same way in the classroom: They could ask it to write a few essays on a given topic, then read those essays to get a better idea of how to structure their own writing.

Although he recognizes the risk of students using it for plagiarism, Uhler said he thinks banning the program outright is the wrong move. When districts do that, they miss out on the opportunity to teach students how to use programs like ChatGPT well. He compared it to the way districts handled Wikipedia: Because anyone can edit the online encyclopedia, there’s a certain risk that any piece of information students find there could be inaccurate. But instead of barring students from using it, teachers talk to them about ways to use Wikipedia to find primary sources and to generate ideas, he said.


McKeown, the Texas A&M professor, said school districts could take the chatbot as an opportunity to rethink how they teach students to write. There was probably a time when asking high school students to write a five-paragraph essay in response to something they’d read was a useful exercise, she said. But now, students are asked to do that kind of work in elementary school, she said, so it probably isn’t the best way to assess how well high school and college students understand a piece of literature.

McKeown said she’d like to see schools adopt a more sophisticated approach to teaching students to write, one that emphasizes the process and not only the finished product. If teachers want students to write an essay, they might have them first draft a plan for that essay that pulls in information from outside sources, she said. Then, students would write the essay and submit it to their teachers, who would go through them and offer feedback. Students would revise their work based on that feedback and submit it again, she said.

That approach would require more of students, she said, but it would also demand more of teachers. If teachers expect students to make significant revisions to their writing, they need to offer feedback that goes beyond issues like grammar and punctuation, she said. Those surface-level mechanical problems in writing are some of the easiest to point out, she said, but when teachers don’t delve into more substantive issues like how to organize content or formulate ideas, they aren’t actually teaching their students to become better writers.

Because they don’t require the same level of rigorous thought, mechanical issues like spelling and punctuation are also the easiest to outsource to computer programs, McKeown said. That isn’t a new development: Spell check software was introduced for personal computers in the early 1980s, and Grammarly, a popular online writing assistant, was released 13 years ago.

McKeown said she has no problem with the notion of using technology to handle those kinds of surface-level issues in writing. Any tool that can lower the writer’s cognitive load can allow them to focus on the more complex, creative aspects of the work that AI can’t handle — things like pulling together different sources of information to develop new ideas, she said.


Emily Erwin, an English teacher at Western Hills High School, has been teaching for 18 years — long enough to see the endless pendulum swing between students finding some new software or system that allows them to cut corners, and newer softwares and systems being introduced to outsmart them. But as classes have shifted more into the digital space since the beginning of the pandemic, Erwin said she’s noticed that students who are trying to get out of doing their assignments have more resources available to help them avoid doing the work themselves. Erwin said she thinks this is an area where her students will always be a step or two ahead of her because of the world they were born into.

Erwin said she thinks it’s a shame when students don’t engage with writing. The goal of writing assignments isn’t only to produce an essay and turn it in, she said. Students can learn a lot in the process of organizing their thoughts into something that makes sense, she said. When students use an AI program to do that work for them, they miss out on that process, she said. They also lose out on the ability to learn from their own mistakes, she said. Failure is a necessary step in growing, not just academically, but also as a human being, she said.

“On the way to building that essay, or on the way to learning that new concept, on the way to accomplishing that goal, we’re changed,” Erwin said. “We build resilience. We learn what not to do, which is helpful information.”

Erwin said she doesn’t spend much time worrying about academic dishonesty, but she also knows that high school students have always tended to look for shortcuts. She tries to put safeguards in place to minimize cheating, but she also acknowledges that no matter what she does, some students will always find a way to cheat. She tries not to take it personally, and hopes that somewhere later on, those students will realize that they should value the learning process and the growth that comes along with it.

“I would love for it to be inside of my classroom from August to May, but it might not,” she said. “The light bulb might go off later on down the road. And I just hope that I’m planting seeds now.”

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