Three Practical Approaches to Using AI Writing Tools in the Classroom

Three Practical Approaches to Using AI Writing Tools in the Classroom

by The Educator Collaborative Fellow Troy Hicks

We’ve all seen the messages, headlines, and social media posts. 

With last fall’s introduction of ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot that can assist with composing emails, essays, and even social media content creation, people’s responses have ranged from mildly annoyed to completely terrified–and schools have responded with the kinds of knee-jerk reactions that we might expect (such as banning it entirely). 

It is worth noting the ways in which AI writing works at the technical level by essentially making a guess at the next possible word in a sequence of words. The AI does this by analyzing existing examples of language and–in much the same way we invite students to emulate great writers through imitation or copy change–the AI makes one prediction, then another, then another, and in doing so composes a sentence, then a paragraph, and so on. (For more on how this works, Ian O’Byrne offers a concise, readable summary of how these AI tools function.)

So, while it is compelling to think about the concerns that AI writing tools raise in educational spaces–both because they can answer the kinds of questions typically found on tests and essays and because this, in turn, raises a great deal of concern about how we design our assignments (and invite students into authentic experiences as readers and writers)—this post serves a different goal. Or, as Katy Ilonka Gero wrote in Wired in December 2022, soon after the release of ChatGPT, “It’s easy to be for or against including computer-generated text in your work, but I predict the conversation will get much more nuanced as we encounter the various ways computers can impact our writing.”

Thus, rather than debate the ways that AI contributes to cheating, ruminate on how we might detect it with plagiarism detectors, or pretend that it doesn’t exist by blocking its use, instead I want to offer three specific ideas– using three different AI writing tools–that can lead to productive, and perhaps even creative, opportunities for our student writers. (Note: All of the tools are available on a “freemium” plan, where a certain amount of use is allowed before encountering a paywall.)

Narrative Writing: Sudowrite

First, as we consider inviting our students to use AI in narrative writing, we can look to a tool like Sudowrite, which calls itself an “always-available brainstorm buddy” and makes the process of adding details a core part of its interface. With the initial writing in place, Sudowrite will then continue to write the story with options for “autocomplete,” a “guided” writing that follows your instructions, or a “tone shift” to adjust the style of the writing. Once this text is generated, a user can highlight words or phrases, and then ask Sudo write to “rewrite,” “describe,” or “expand.” It also offers options to “rewrite” with options to “rephrase,” “add description,” “mimic a famous style,” and more. Finally, there are even more options for brainstorming, adding a twist in the plot, creating characters, and composing poems. 

For instance, I began with some brief ideas to get enough words into Sudowrite to begin my personal narrative:

significant moment

climbing mountain

beautiful morning

watching sunrise

lots of rocks and tree roots

twisting ankle

not sure if I could go on

still making it to the top

feeling successful

From there, it generated a great deal of text for me, including a segment with “”favorite pictures.” I highlighted that phrase, and then I asked it to “describe” this, focusing on smell. Sudowrite generated the following:

A salty wind blew in from the sea, whipping through the trees that lined the cliffs. The air was fresh and crisp, but with a distinct tang of salt, like being at the beach. A thick fog was rolling in off the ocean, parting like a curtain over the waves and swirling inland. The trees creaked and moaned like a chorus of gray-bearded men as they leaned in the wind and lifted their branches to the heavens.

And, while not necessarily the imagery I might have written myself, it does give me some ideas that I could use for revision and the continued writing of my personal narrative. In this sense, Sudowrite could help our writers as they work to “show, not tell” and describe a personally meaningful event in vivid detail. 

Informational Writing: Rytr

Second, as we move to informational writing, a tool like Rytr, described as a tool for social media, public relations, and other forms of business writing, claims that it will “auto-generate catchy, original, and high-converting copies (texts) in popular tones & languages.” As we think about the goal for information writers to produce clear, accessible prose, for instance, Rytr allows writers 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.”

Also, though not available in the free version, Rytr will then allow users to:

  • Improve: “Correct grammar and improve readability”
  • Rephrase: “Rephrase selected text to make it sound different”
  • Paragraph: “Write a paragraph on the selected text”
  • Expand, shorten, and append: Insert a few words (or take some out)

For instance, when I asked Rytr to produce a text on the topic of “hunger,” I selected a “compassionate” tone, an “email,” as the use case, and 2 variants. In this sense, Rytr took up the call, and composed two emails. The first was addressed to an individual who might be hungry, and even substituted the more contemporary term, “food insecurity.” Here is what Rytr created:

Hello {Recipient Name},

I wanted to reach out and introduce myself. My name is {sender name} and I am the founder of {organization}. I’ve been thinking about you recently, because we know that hunger is a real problem in our area. I’m wondering, are you struggling with food insecurity?

If so, please know that there are resources available to help you. We have tons of food available in our pantry at {organization} – we gather fresh produce from local farms and bakeries almost every day. There’s no need for you to go hungry!

If you would like more information on how to get involved with us, or if you want me to connect you with one of our partners who can offer more services, please let me know by replying back…

The second email was aimed at an entirely different audience, inviting the recipient to join an advocacy organization and, if I asked it to continuing “rytr-ing,” perhaps answer the call for a monetary donation. By comparing these two variants, I could start to think more about the way I might approach this same topic with different audiences and very distinct purposes, bringing me to a new perspective on this piece of informational writing. 

Argumentative Writing: Perplexity

For a third and final AI writing tool, which actually describes itself as “an answer engine,” I turn to Perplexity. It’s interface welcomes the user to “ask anything” and, from there, begins providing answers. More importantly, and perhaps surprisingly, these answers also include citations to further sources. Additionally, it allows the user to indicate whether its responses are “accurate” or “inaccurate” and can view a detailed list of the citations.

For instance, in using the same topic as above, I typed in “hunger in America,” it first generated the following concise response, with links included:

According to the USDA, more than 34 million people in the United States are food insecure[1][2]. This includes 9 million children[1], and 5 million children according to other estimates[3]. No community is spared from hunger in America[4].

Then, in a more “detailed” view, in went on to generate the following, which you can see at this link.

What is compelling is that Perplexity then prompts the user to keep asking follow up questions, thus extending their inquiry. Of course, a user could click on the “related” links, and see what else Perplexity generates, and go from there, too. These initial ideas — along with sources — could be a starting point for students to enter the argument around a particular topic and develop their own ideas further. 

Integrating AI in Engaging, Effective, and Ethical Ways

Depending on the age of your learners, the lesson you have planned, and the ways in which you might use the AI as one part of a scaffolded writing process, these tools offer many opportunities. Of course, simply turning students loose to use these tools is inappropriate. Just as we would want to invite our students to look at mentor texts, study their craft, and then imitate that style with their own writing, we can also invite them to see what AI writing tools generate and, from there, talk with them about ethical and appropriate uses of what the AI has created. 

Still, these tools — as well as the now ubiquitously discussed ChatGPT — do have possibilities in the writing classroom. Returning to  Katy Ilonka Gero’s essay, she encourages us to consider three questions, as writers:

  • “Which parts of writing are so tedious you’d be happy to see them go?” 
  • “Which parts bring you the inexplicable joy of creating something from nothing?” 
  • “What is it about writing you hold most dear?”

By using these questions–and by imagining different ways that we talk about AI writing tools and integrate them into our teaching–we can begin to have more meaningful conversations with our students about their values as writers. 

And helping them to articulate what they value about writing is, perhaps, the most humanizing part of what we can do as we introduce our students to AI writing tools. 


1 Comment

  1. Judith Jester Durante

    Which grade span(s) would you say these approaches are appropriate for?

Comments are closed