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Pivoting the Conversation on AI in Writing

As ChatGPT has heralded the “death of the college essay” and “the end of high school English, we could be well served to lean into the idea that we need to both rethink our writing assignments and to invite our students to “cheat” on them.

So, I am clearly coming to the conversation on AI a bit late.

As ChatGPT has heralded the “death of the college essay” and “the end of high school English” — and as we see both combative and generative approaches to the role of AI in writing instruction — I might be adding this blog post a bit behind the curve (though I was honored to be interviewed for a story about AI in writing this past week, published in Bridge Michigan).

Of course, I think that this is really the beginning of a much longer conversation that we are going to have about the role of technology and the ways in which we might approach it. So, it is not so much as I am late to the conversation, as it is that I am hoping we move it in a different direction.

Others in academia and beyond are, to be clear, already calling for this pivot, so I am not the first on this count either.

Still, I want to echo it here. Paul Fyfe, Director of the Graduate Certificate in Digital Humanities at NCSU, describes a compelling approach in a recent quote from Inside Higher Ed:

For the past few semesters, I’ve given students assignments to “cheat” on their final papers with text-generating software. In doing so, most students learn—often to their surprise—as much about the limits of these technologies as their seemingly revolutionary potential. Some come away quite critical of AI, believing more firmly in their own voices. Others grow curious about how to adapt these tools for different goals or about professional or educational domains they could impact. Few believe they can or should push a button

Paul Fyfe, associate professor of English and director of the graduate certificate in digital humanities, North Carolina State University (cited from Inside Higher Ed)

Like Fyfe, I too lean into the idea that we need to both rethink our writing assignments and to invite our students to “cheat” on them. AI can be used for idea generation (and refinement), and it can also be used as a way for us to reconsider genre and style. For instance, I continue to be intrigued by the options offered in Rytr, in particular, as it allows us to choose:

  • Tone, including options such as “compassionate,” “thoughtful,” and “worried.”
  • “Use case” or style, including options such as “blog idea and outline,” “email,” and “call to action.”
  • The option to produce up to three variants, with differing levels of “creativity.”

The screenshot below shows the Rytr interface, and the ways that these options can be easily chosen from dropdown menus before a writer enters their keywords and was Ryter use its AI abilities to, well, “ryt” for them.

Unlike the input interface of ChatGPT and other AI writing tools (which, to their credit, allows for natural language input for “write in the style of” including pirates and the King James Bible), the interface for Rytr is prompting me to consider a variety of contextual factors.

As a writer and teacher of writing, this set of choices available in Rytr fascinates me.

Screenshot from the AI writing tool, Rytr, showing the input interface with options for "tone," "use case," "variants," and "creativity level."
Screenshot from the input interface of Rytr (January 21, 2023).

Just as the “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” invites student to engage in a variety of “habits of mind” such as “curiosity” and “flexibility,” I think that that AI writing tools, too, can give us opportunities to engage our students in productive conversations and activities as they create AI output (and re-create that output through a collaborative co-authoring with the AI).

Also, I think that we need to ask some serious questions about the design of our writing assignments.

When the vast majority of writing assignments have, well, already been written about and replied to (see: any essay writing mill, ever), we need to consider what it is that really constitutes a strong writing assignment — as well as the various audiences, positions, time frames, research sources, and alternative genres (Gardner, 2011) — in order to design meaningful tasks for our students that tools like ChatGPT will be, if not unable to answer, at least unable to answer as well as our students could through their knowledge of the content, their ability to integrate meaningful citations, and their writerly creativity.

From there, I am also reminded of NWP’s “Writing Assignment Framework and Overview,” which also suggests that we must design our assignments as one component of instruction, with reflective questions that we must ask (p. 4 in PDF):

What do I want my students to learn from this assignment? For whom are they writing and for what purpose? What do I think the final product should look like? What processes will help the students? How do I teach and communicate with the students about these matters?

National Writing Project’s “Writing Assignment Framework and Overview

As we consider these questions, we might better be able to plan for the kind of instruction and modeling we may offer our students (likely using AI writing tools in the process) as well as thinking about how they might help define their own audiences, purposes, and genres. With that, we might also consider how traditional writing tasks could be coupled with multimodal components, inviting students to compose across text, image, video, and other media in order to demonstrate competency in a variety of ways.

If we continue to explore these options in our assignment design — and welcome students to work with us to choose elements of their writing tasks — it is likely that they will develop the kinds of intentional, deliberate stance toward their own work as writers.

They can, as the Framework implies, “approach learning from an active stance” (p. 4) and “be well positioned to meet the writing challenges in the full spectrum of academic courses and later in their careers” (p. 2). As the oft-mentioned idea in education goes, we need to prepare our students for jobs that have not been invented yet, and AI writing tools are likely to play a part in their work.

All that said, I don’t know that I have answers.

Yet, I hope we continue to ask questions, and will do so again soon. To that end, I welcome you to join me and my colleague Dan Lawson for a workshop on this topic, described in the paragraphs below.


Since its launch in late November of 2022, ChatGPT has brought an already simmering debate about the use of AI in writing to the public’s attention. Now, as school districts and higher education institutions are deciding what to do with next steps, as writing teachers, we wonder: how can educators, across grades levels and disciplines, explore the use of AI writing in their classrooms as a tool for idea generation, rhetorical analysis, and, perhaps, as a “co-authoring” tool? Moreover, how do we adapt our assignments and instruction to help students bring a critical perspective to their use of AI writing tools? 

As I try to explore this a bit more, please join Dan Lawson and me on Thursday, February 2nd from 3:30 to 5:00 p.m. for a hyflex workshop (in person at CMU or online via WebEx) on revising writing assignments to better facilitate authentic learning goals. Please bring an assignment sheet for a current writing assignment. We will use AI writing applications to consider how best to revise those assignments and adapt our instruction for this changing context.

Register here

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Invitation to an Inquiry: Intentional Integration of Digital Literacies into an ELA Lesson

My colleague Kristen Hawley Turner and I have been thinking about the integration of technologies into instruction, specifically toward the development of digital literacies, for a long time, and we are looking for collaborators for our next project.

My colleague Kristen Hawley Turner and I have been thinking about the integration of technologies into instruction, specifically toward the development of digital literacies, for a long time, and we are looking for collaborators for our next project. 

Recently, we were fortunate enough to have an article published in English Journal, “Digital Literacy (Still) Can’t Wait: Renewing and Reframing the Conversation,” which was a follow-up to our 2013 piece, “No Longer a Luxury: Digital Literacy Can’t Wait.” We are also fortunate to know that many of you have used one or both of these pieces in your own work and methods courses, and for that we thank you!

Now, we are looking ahead to what’s next. Here is something we want to try in 2023 with like-minded colleagues. 

Here is the ask of you as potential collaborators:

  • In the next few weeks, read the 2022 article and share some initial ideas in the NWP Studio (if you need an invitation, please let us know) about the four framing questions that we use to think about integrating digital literacies:
    • How do I foster communication between my students?
    • How do I allow for accountable collaboration?
    • How will my students use digital tools to create, consume, critique and think?
    • How will my students revisit, revise, and reflect on their thinking and growth?
  • During the winter/spring of 2023, take one “tried and true” lesson in your repertoire and consider new ways to more intentionally integrate a digital literacy component.
    • This lesson can be a face-to-face or online lesson. 
    • The important part is that you rethink the ways in which technology tools could be used to help students develop skills of consumption, curation, creation, collaboration and/or connection while engaging with ELA content.
  • As you experiment, join in this conversation in the NWP Teacher Studio so we can have an on-going discussion about this amongst colleagues. 
  • If there is interest among the group, we may also host a few Zoom meetings to share and think together, but that will come later on. 

Where is all of this going? Well, we aren’t entirely sure, but that’s OK! We are planning, at minimum, to organize a roundtable session proposal for NCTE 2023 in Columbus, OH and then take the conversation from there. The NCTE proposal is due January 18, and we will do the heavy lifting of getting the proposal written and submitted.

So, interested in joining us as we think about the intentional integration of digital literacies? 

In addition to leaving a comment here, please take a moment to complete this brief Google form by January 11, 2023, so we can learn a bit more about you and what you might like to do in this collaboration. We will then work quickly from January 9th to 18th to get our proposal together. 

The form asks you to share some basic contact info, a bit about your teaching context, and thoughts on the lesson you are thinking about “rethinking” with digital literacies (2-3 sentence description).

Again, we would appreciate it if you could share your interest by Wednesday, January 11, 2023, and we will be back in touch soon after.

Thanks,

Kristen and Troy

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Announcing “Human/Nature: An Exploration of Place, Stories, and Climate Futurism”

As a grant-funded workshop for K-12 teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, apply for our event in summer of 2023: “Human/Nature: An Exploration of Place, Stories, and Climate Futurisms.”

As a grant-funded workshop for K-12 teachers sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, I am pleased to share that I am part of the leadership team that will welcome teachers to northern California in the summer of 2023 for our event, “Human/Nature: An Exploration of Place, Stories, and Climate Futurism.”

From our project website, the summary of the workshop is quoted here:

“Human/Nature: An Exploration of Place, Stories, and Climate Futurism” is a combined format 3-week summer institute sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. With in-person and virtual convenings for 25 English teachers of grades 6-12, the institute will be held virtually from April 10 to June 10, 2023, and in-person from June 12-23, 2023, on Sonoma State University’s campus as well as through field trips to various locations in northern California, and again virtually from July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024.

Climatefuturisms.com

Applications opened on December 1st, 2022 and will remain open until March 3, 2023.

We will ask participants for some basic contact info and teaching history, and will also ask them to complete a brief essay with the following prompts.

Written Response Prompts

Part one. In the first part of your response (approximately 300-450 words), offer insights on ONE of the following:

  • If a colleague were to describe your classroom, what would they tell us about in terms of sights, sounds, and activities? In what ways do you engage students in literary analysis, active learning, and creative expression?
  • Share an example of something you have been a part of, inside a school or in your community, in which you demonstrated qualities of leadership. In what ways were you able to listen closely, invite others to collaborate, and lead them to an actionable outcome? 
  • As it relates to the themes and topics of this institute (“human/nature” and climate futurism), can you share a memorable anecdote from your life that will give us a further sense of what makes you want to be part of this work? What has this experience taught you and how would it inform your work in our institute as we critically examine dystopian literature and engage in action planning?

Part two. In the second part of your response (approximately 200-350 words), please briefly share your current work and/or future interests in the following:

  • young adult literature and climate fiction, or “cli fi”
  • digital and media literacies
  • place-based education
  • participating in a sustained professional learning experience, both online and onsite your potential for creativity, innovation, and engagement

Questions? Please contact our project director, Dr. Fawn Canady.


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Follow-Up from “Fitting In, Standing Out, and Building an Identity: Middle Schoolers and Media Literacy”

As we consider the ways in which we might invite our middle school learners to bring their digital literacy practices into the classroom, we then went into a structured breakout room conversation that imagined what four fictionalized students could be creating — fan fiction, gaming, Tik Tok-style videos, and vlogs via YouTube — and how these practices might inform other academic work that they could do.

On November 30, 2022, I was invited to present “Fitting In, Standing Out, and Building an Identity: Middle Schoolers and Media Literacy” for the Media Education Lab’s on-going series, Media Literacy Across the Generations.

As the session unfolded and participants added their ideas, I appreciated the ways in which our initial chat conversation brought about a list of “verbs” in which middle school students might engage, including:

  • Being Curious
  • Being Entertained
  • Connecting
  • Copying
  • Creating
  • Dancing
  • Emulating
  • Entertaining
  • Making Friends
  • Participating
  • Playing
  • Recreating
  • Relaxing
  • Scrolling
  • Sharing
  • Showcasing
  • Watching

As we consider the ways in which we might invite our middle school learners to bring their digital literacy practices into the classroom, we then went into a structured breakout room conversation that imagined what four fictionalized students could be creating — fan fiction, gaming, Tik Tok-style videos, and vlogs via YouTube — and how these practices might inform other academic work that they could do. Here are the session slides with embedded links to resources, the “view only” digital handout, and the recording embedded below.

Feel free to repurpose these materials for your own professional development sessions or contact me if you would like to talk about workshop and webinar opportunities.

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Session Resources from NCTE 2022

NCTE 2022 in Anaheim was a wonderful gathering, back face-to-face after two years of virtual learning necessitated by the pandemic. And, as anyone who has been with me at NCTE knows, over the years, I have tried many methods for keeping slides, handouts, and links from presentations, webinars, and workshops organized.

NCTE 2022 in Anaheim was a wonderful gathering, back face-to-face after two years of virtual learning necessitated by the pandemic. And, as anyone who has been with me at NCTE knows, over the years I have tried many methods for keeping slides, handouts, and links from presentations, webinars, and workshops organized.

And — after using wikis, social bookmarking tools, collaborative boards, QR codes, shortened URLs, and more — I will, of course, keep experimenting with new, digitally-mediated ways to share during sessions. However, a few technical glitches reminded me that, yes, sometimes simply having a website with a list of links is important.

To that end, here is a concise list of the sessions I was involved with at NCTE 2022.

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Media Literacy Across the Generations Webinar

Tomorrow, Tuesday, November 29th at 12:00 noon ET, I will lead the next in the Media Education Lab’s series of webinars, “Across the Generations.”

Tomorrow, Tuesday, November 29th at 12:00 noon ET, I will lead the next in the Media Education Lab’s series of webinars, “Across the Generations.”

My session, focused on tweens and teens, is titled “Fitting in, Standing Out, and Building an Identity: Middle Schoolers and Media Literacy.” You can register from the link on the series home page , or directly via Zoom.

Here is the session overview:

At the same time they are trying to fit in with their peers, tween and early-teenage youth are also working to create their own identities and stand out amongst the crowd. Media messaging — from the social media they consume to the advertisements that are targeted at them — play on this tension, forcing our youth to make choices about how to build an identity while not standing too far away from their peers. In this session, we explore the tensions that youth face as well as teaching strategies to help them become better media consumers and creators.

From Media Education Lab, “Across the Generations”

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Podcast Interview: Every Day is Earth Day

As we close Earth Day activities, I am grateful to have had the chance to talk with CMLife reporter Teresa Homsi about the intersection of climate change misinformation and media literacy in this April 20 2022 podcast.

As we close Earth Day activities, I am grateful to have had the chance to talk with CMLife reporter Teresa Homsi about the intersection of climate change misinformation and media literacy in this April 20 2022 podcast.

In order to develop solutions to environmental issues, we need to be on the same page and supported by credible, fact-based information. But how do we know what a fact is, what is real and how do we navigate the mess of misinformation? Join guest host Teresa Homsi and professor Troy Hicks as they discuss media literacy – what it is and why it’s important. Hicks is a professor of English and Education at CMU who works with K-12 teachers on implementing media literacy curriculum into their classrooms.


Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

Embracing the “Both/And” of Digital Writing

Embracing a “both/and” stance toward technology, we can push back against the kinds of dichotomies that characterize most language arts instruction. What might you do to move any of your ELA assignments toward a “both/and” stance, embracing the opportunities that you have right now to utilize the technologies available to you and your students?

As America moves into an endemic stage of our relationship with COVID-19, and professional learning is slowly shifting back to face-to-face settings, I was fortunate enough to travel to the CCIRA conference this weekend, and to share talks related to topics from my recent book, Mindful Teaching with Technology: Digital Diligence in the English Language Arts, Grades 6-12. In one of the sessions, I used a phrase that I learned early in graduate school from a leader in my field and advisor at the time, Ernest Morrell and have borrowed many times since: “both/and.”

Searching for the phrase, there are millions of hits about “both/and” thinking, not least of which is the memoir by Huma Abedin. That said, when Morrell introduced me to the idea it was in relation to the kinds of reading and writing (as well as listening and speaking, viewing and visually representing) that we ask students to do in our typical ELA classrooms. In this sense, he was pushing back against the kinds of dichotomies that characterize most language arts instruction such as to simply read the story and write an analysis of the characters and plot, or to write an argument in the form of the five-paragraph essay.

So, for nearly 20 years, I’ve carried the idea of the “both/and” into my work, too, in particular around digital writing and collaborating with K-12 colleagues to consider new possibilities for writing in their classrooms. I will often start by saying that, “yes, I want for my own children and all students to both be able to craft words into sentences, and sentences into paragraphs, and paragraphs into essays, and…” then providing any number of examples of digital writing tools and tasks that they might consider. After one of my sessions at CCIRA, one of the participants came up and said how much she appreciated that phrase, “both/and,” and wondered if I could elaborate just a bit more.

In response, I shared an example of a lesson where students could take one idea and extend it in different ways. In the book, one of the chapters is an extended lesson that focuses on helping students craft an initial idea in a short paragraph or kernel essay, and the then moving their argument into three forms of digital writing using Adobe Spark (Renamed Creative Cloud Express in June 2022), which has recently been rebranded as Creative Cloud Express. In the lesson, students are encouraged to come up with a hashtag that summarizes their main argument, and to to then reframe their message in 1) an image with a brief caption like a post on social media, to then 2) record their message in a short video, and, finally, to create 3) a web page with a “call to action” as an external link. The entire lesson could take just one class period, or could be stretched out over days, depending on the time that you have and what goals you hope to accomplish. This is what I mean as just one example of the “both/and” kind of thinking.

As I continue to reflect on NCTE’s “Definition of Literacy in a Digital Age,” especially their point that literacies include “a wide range of skills, competencies, and dispositions” and that “[t]hese literacies are interconnected, dynamic, and malleable,” I keep returning to the “both/and” idea. Knowing that our instruction needs to be more flexible than ever and that – even though, according to Common Sense Media, there are still gaps – due to the pandemic, more students in more schools have access to devices right now than ever before (and, perhaps, may ever happen again in the future), I wonder: if we don’t move ELA instruction toward a “both/and” mentality now, when will it happen? Again, while I am sure that divides still exist and that school policies and procedures may prevent some students from taking their devices home on a regular basis (if at all), the simple fact is that the vast majority of students will not be any more connected in the future than they are now.

So, what can ELA teachers do to encourage the “both/and” approach as we consider common tasks in our classrooms? What if we ask students to:

  • Both read the stories to look for elements plot, character development, and use of literary devices, and then craft their analysis and response in the form of a timeline showing how each emerges in the story, using a tool like Sutori or Timetoast to show the intersections of these elements?
  • Both write their initial argument essay an incorporate evidence from outside sources, and then step away from the text to do a “distant reading” of their own work using the word cloud and word frequency tools with a corpus analysis via Voyant Tools so they can use different functions to see their essay in a different manner, using that data to then prepare for revision?
  • Both prepare their speech while recording a practice session, and then post a recording of them practicing it to a video annotation site like Now Comment or Video Ant, noting their own questions and concerns about their performance, and seeking input from their peers and teacher before delivering it?

These are just a few examples, and I am sure that there are many other ways we can continue to take advantage of the tech access that we have right now to more fully engage our students (above and beyond simply assigning digital dittos and collecting work through our LMSs). I will be curious to hear how the landscape of digital literacy is changing as I am able to talk with more and more teachers in the months ahead and, as always, welcome further inquiry, dialogue, and collaboration around these topics here on my blog or via social media.

What might you do to move any of your ELA assignments toward a “both/and” stance, embracing the opportunities that you have right now to utilize the technologies available to you and your students?


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“Digitally Writing New Histories” Unit Plans Released

The Digitally Writing New Histories project was designed with principles of best practice for professional learning in that it is timely, inquiry-based, connected to relevant curricular reforms. We thank the many teachers who created the the inquiry-driven units that are in alignment with the C3 Framework and make use of primary sources in critical and creative ways.

MCSS TPS Unit Plan Home Page Image
MCSS TPS Unit Plan Home Page Image

During the 2020-2021 school year, the Michigan Council for the Social Studies partnered with The Library of Congress on a Teaching with Primary Sources Midwest grant, and I was fortunate enough to be one of the project leaders. We thank the many teachers who created the the inquiry-driven units that are in alignment with the C3 Framework and make use of primary sources in critical and creative ways.

With a shift towards disciplinary, digital, and critical literacies, we find that historical documents and artifacts — as well as images, social media posts, and videos created with contemporary technologies — all serve as primary sources. The Digitally Writing New Histories project was designed with principles of best practice for professional learning in that it is timely, inquiry-based, connected to relevant curricular reforms. We invited 20 Michigan educators to engage in the kinds of practices that we would, in turn, expect them to enact in their own classrooms.

This professional learning experience took place entirely online during evening sessions, through Zoom video conferencing, throughout the entire 2020-21 academic year. In addition to the countless number of digitized artifacts available through the Library of Congress website, we invited teachers to examine artifacts through virtual visits to local museums and learn how to use digital writing tools. Moreover, we were able to virtually visit with many Michigan-based museums, including:

We again thank the teachers who worked on this project throughout the entire year, and for their efforts in producing these units.


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Fellowship with NCTE and TPS: New Perspectives on Primary Sources

The National Council of Teachers of English, in partnership with the Library of Congress, invites high school teachers to apply for a fellowship in the New Perspectives on Primary Sources (NPPS) Project. The deadline to apply is Wednesday, December 1, 2021.

NCTE TPS Banner AdAs one of the project facilitators, I am pleased to share that the National Council of Teachers of English, in partnership with the Library of Congress, invites high school teachers to apply for a fellowship in the New Perspectives on Primary Sources (NPPS) Project.

Fellowships offer approximately 60 hours of professional learning alongside the opportunity to contribute to an instructional unit and chapter for an NCTE edited book. As conditions for travel might allow, participants will be given complimentary registration for the 2022 NCTE Annual Convention in November.

Stipends of $2,000 will be offered.

Applicants must be current educators teaching in classrooms. English, literature, writing, speech communication, media studies, school librarians, and journalism teachers are all invited.

The deadline to apply is Wednesday, December 1, 2021.

Find the application here.

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