Mission High sits next to Mission Dolores Park.
Mission High, located just steps away from Mission Dolores Park, is one of 7 SFUSD schools in the Mission District. Photo by Lydia Chávez

San Francisco public school teachers are dipping their toes into the city’s newest industry: artificial intelligence, which has spawned popular tools used by educators in teaching, grading and creating lessons. 

But, while some teachers are cautiously optimistic about the role of AI in lightening their workloads, others have kept their distance and remain more vigilant. 

“It’s a great time to be a teacher if you know how to use this stuff,” said David Johnson, a sixth grade English and history teacher at Buena Vista Horace Mann K-8.

For a recent class on the Roman Empire, Johnson used ChatGPT to create an example myth about how children and adults are addicted to technology. 

His first version had taken him about a week to write; the second took the AI a few seconds. Johnson asked ChatGPT to revise his first draft: Add dialogue here, for example, or cut this down to 100 words. The end product was serviceable; not an amazing example, but good enough to show the students what he wanted from them. 

On Facebook, a “chatGPT for Teachers” group has more than 350,000 members. Teachers ask each other for advice on using the tool, from Mission-based Open AI: Can it make slide shows? Can it write state-mandated reports? Can it create flashcards? 

One special education teacher recently described using ChatGPT to remake a multiple-choice quiz so students who failed the first time could have another chance.

“I am freaking blown away!!!” she said in the group. “The questions are exactly what I was hoping for. Y’all, this would have taken me an entire weekend.”

“It’s really helpful,” said a new teacher at a Mission private school. She began grading students’ work with AI, saying it saves her hours. “I feel like maybe [AI] could turn [teaching] into a 40-hour-a-week job, instead of something that’s really overwhelming.” 

The teacher requested anonymity, because she has still not broached the topic with students or parents.

Her AI of choice is Brisk Teaching, which uses AI to flag other AI content, draft curricula, and even offer feedback on student papers. She told Brisk her grading criteria for second-grade student essays: A clear thesis, strong evidence and analysis of the evidence. Brisk then looked at the students’ work and gave three paragraphs of feedback, highlighting what the students did well and where the areas for growth were.

“The feedback is really good,” she said, adding that she reads, revises and sometimes completely changes what the AI writes. “It allows me to have more capacity to focus on other things that maybe AI couldn’t do.”

At her school, the Spanish and Italian teachers have begun to use AI, she said, and a few math and science teachers have started using it for lab reports, too. Even the principal is looking for new ways to use AI, she said.

The technology remains an open secret among her colleagues. If she told her students and parents, she said, “I’d be worried that they would feel like I’m not as invested in [student] growth and development as I am.”

Sheila Tenney, a third-grade teacher at Glen Park Elementary School, has used ChatGPT to write a lesson plan for rounding numbers to the nearest 10 and nearest 100, and she is considering it for lessons on capitalization, paragraph writing, and grammar. For her, the tool was “pretty successful, no more or less than any other lesson that I had used,” she said.

At this year’s Digital District Day, a one-day event to familiarize teachers with technology, she said, the school district even encouraged teachers to use AI.

Others, however, are more critical.

“In my opinion, teaching is a very human profession,” said Dante Popalisky, a math teacher at George Washington High School, who only uses AI to write the first draft of recommendation letters. Even then, he finds the product “very formulaic.” 

David Ko, a social studies teacher at George Washington High School, agreed. The lessons designed by ChatGPT, he said, “are worse than the ones that I make.” ChatGPT’s lesson on the aftermath of the Civil War, for example, was formatted correctly, but had no connection to his previous lessons.

Ko said he could understand using AI “if a teacher has a large percentage of students who have some kind of disability that requires additional time,” he said.

But AI is a supplement, he feels. Otherwise, teachers will “never develop the skill of creating lessons.”

Like many colleagues who are “hyper vigilant,” Ko is watching the technology develop. “We have this expectation that the student is going to take their lessons seriously, put their effort into it the same way that we did,” he said. If teachers choose to take shortcuts, Ko fears, the social contract between students and teachers will be broken.

Others find the use of AI genuinely disturbing. “I come from the generation when we all had to write our own stuff,” said Susan Vaughan, a substitute teacher at Lowell High School and a summer teacher at City College of San Francisco. “I get students … they’re using tools to clean up their work … and I prefer that they didn’t,” she said. “I prefer that I’m the one reading their work and I’m the one giving them feedback, not some machine.”

And others equated it to the advent of other tools, saying fear of AI was a fear of change. “Is there a fear about Wikipedia?” asked Johnson, the Buena Vista teacher. “Is there a fear about CliffsNotes?”

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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1 Comment

  1. The headline I really wish I could see is “SF schools experiment with teaching kids about the mathematics and technology behind AI systems”. But I doubt we’ll see that one anytime soon, sadly.

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