To Writing and Beyond!

Emerald Connection, December 12th, 2022

I write for my job every day.  Why?  For me, writing is often the most effective means to organize and communicate my thinking.  Last week, there were three occurrences that got me thinking about both writing and effective communication.  Two were parent conversations, one on each end of our grade spectrum, and one was an item in the technology news.

Writing always has a mechanical component and a thinking component.  For Kindergarteners, effective written communication means both learning how to form letters themselves (the early mechanics of writing) and getting their ideas out (the heart of communication).  Matt works on both.  For the latter, Matt asks students to dictate their thoughts and he scribes them out, verbatim.  He doesn’t polish or edit their words at all.  He doesn’t organize for them as they will learn to do that better over time.  He simply helps them put words to paper, something they cannot yet do on their own.  This is a critical first step in the writing process.  It allows students to be writers and to perceive themselves as writers even when their writing skills are not yet developed.  To see what I’m writing about, stop by Matt’s room to see some Kindergarten writing.

As students develop and mature, they take their internal conversation and organize it to be most effective in written form.  Willow’s class has used a range of writing forms to help the 8th graders hone the process of shaping their words effectively.  While this has included traditional essays, they have also written recipes to describe how to go through the process of getting a passport, talk shows scripts exploring big issues in a Salman Rushdie novel, and free flowing journals which they later revisit to shape into more polished pieces.  Willow addresses mechanics, too.  This has included proofreading mechanics (like spelling and capitalization) and the physical mechanics of writing (like making their own paper and typesetting their words).  Some of the 8th grade writing will begin appearing in this spot in the new year, so keep an eye out for it!

If your news feed overlaps with mine, you may have heard about ChatGPT, an artificial intelligence writing engine that became public, in beta form, this month.  With a small prompt like “What is good writing?” it can and does produce very competent essays (or poetry or other forms of writing).  I was tempted to insert a sample of its work here, but the site is currently overwhelmed with traffic!  I do encourage you to check it out when it is back online.

The implications of ChatGPT are significant.  On the one hand, new technology has always supplanted old in making the mechanics of writing easier.  However, ChatGPT and other technology tools may change what it means to write.  If we can now ask technology to write about the 15th Amendment or Shakespeare or Hobbes* for us, what role will our students (or we) play in writing.  I suspect two things will remain.  First, like our Kindergarteners, we will always want to get our own ideas out into the world.  ChatGPT can never write for us in this sense.  And second, every writer needs to do the work of revision to get their pieces into a final form.  Perhaps our future eighth graders will spend some of their time revising the work of ChatGPT, their peers, and themselves in order to better understand good writing and to improve their own, just as Ben Franklin did to improve his own writing as a teenager.

At Steamboat Mountain School, we are always thinking about the best ways to support and stretch our student’s learning.  Whether scribing in Kindergarten, learning to write paragraphs in our third and fourth grade classes, or revising written work to make it better in 8th grade, we will continue to write because it helps us organize and express our thoughts.

Take care of yourself and others,

Greg Friedman

* ChatGPT did write about Hobbes in response to one blogger’s prompt, but wrote with high quality and low accuracy, much like my AP US History writing from 11th grade!  We will continue to have a role to play in teaching writing and creating our own writing in the future, but it may not be the role we play now.

The Connection