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  • Karrie Zylstra Myton

AI and the Sixth Grade (Part One)

Updated: Jun 2

I’ve been reeling lately from all the information about artificial intelligence (AI) and the ways it will change my world. It seems to be everywhere I turn.

For those of you who don’t know, AI is a broad term that describes some of the latest developments in creative computer software. You can tell the open source ChatGPT (or Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer) to write an essay on the American Revolution and it will spit out a decent one in seconds. If it’s too good for your teacher to believe it’s yours or the language is too formal, you can then ask it to revise.

screenshot of ChatGPT

It will write blog posts for you.

It will take your novel concept and write your pitch for you.

It will create whatever art you need or want.

It will write computer code.

It will do so much more that I haven’t begun to tell you it all.

It is also mostly free or very inexpensive and it will not flag you as violating copyright or plagiarism laws. You can easily and, for now, legally say the work is yours. I'm certain that you have been using tech like this as a maker and a consumer already whether you know it or not.

Book business people that I’ve followed for years are writing about it. Dan Blank has an excellent post on AI with visuals and examples if you want to see more specifics.

My friends are posting about it on social media.

“[Opinion] Worried about AI? If you don't learn it or use it, or don't pay attention, your job is in danger.

My experience has been good so far. I encourage everyone to use Bard (Google) or Bing chat (ChatGPT).

I'm curious to (know) what you know!”

Fundraising resources I follow are holding sessions to teach others like me how to use it to improve and increase the speed of our writing for non-profit organizations.

And not too long ago my cousin posted a blog post to his Facebook feed with a piece about banana slugs written in my style. It wasn’t half bad but it did freak me out a bit.

I know I need to face this emerging reality as a writer, an artist, and even as someone who practices yoga. At first I thought I’d tackle it in one blog post but as I started to outline what I would write, I saw that there is WAY too much for me to write about in one go. You’d be reading thousands of words and I’d be overwhelmed trying to get it done.

I decided instead to write this in a series of posts in order to make sense of it for myself and (I hope) for others.

For part one, I’m going to step back from the world of ChatGPT for a minute and take you on an elementary school field trip.

Trust me. We’ll get back to AI.

Last week I went on one of these 6th grade trips as a chaperone. This was not a new experience for me. In fact, I would call myself something of a veteran chaperone. I’ve been showing up for these sorts of events since my older son started kindergarten around 2005. Most of my trips have been to the zoos and, on occasion, to museums.

Every time, they start out awkward for the parents who don’t know each other and then, as we all relax and figure out what in the holy heck we are doing, we settle in and even enjoy ourselves on occasion.

For my final elementary school trip as a mom, I went to BizTown in Auburn, WA. Located in the Junior Achievement Center near the SuperMall, this was an experiential trip where the kids took on roles in a mock town to simulate what the working world is like for them.

map of BizTown

I was assigned as a volunteer in the BECU branch with 4 elementary school tellers, an assistant manager, a CFO, and a CEO.

It started out rough. I got there before the kids and was locked out until the doors opened promptly at 9:00 am. I then waited in a long line of mostly moms I did not know and had to fill out MORE paperwork and show my ID.

Months ago, I had watched the required training videos and signed multiple forms. I tried not to be cranky with the lady who sent me back to the end of the line for an extraneous form that asked the same questions again, who checked my ID, and who issued me a badge. I don’t think I succeeded in hiding my Oscar the Grouch face.

I then wandered back to the mock BECU branch and tried to understand what I was doing by reading the laminated materials with their lists of meetings and my volunteer responsibilities. Panic started to set in right about then. It was rather awful to feel in charge of something I didn’t understand.

Things started to get better when a staff member called us into the center of BizTown where she ran through a quick overview of what would happen and the basic rules. She explained that they had only recently had donations of Chromebooks to begin moving away from the exclusively physical paper transactions they’d been using in the past. Another mom also chatted with me and helped me relax. (Thank you, Other Mom.)

After the kids got there, it was even better. They were delighted and delightful—excited to be there and to pretend to be adults for a day.

The students all came in to deposit their paychecks on the first break. My branch was overwhelmed. Most took out the maximum of $2.00 in cash, leaving the balance of under $10.00 on their debit cards.

Everyone took breaks in shifts. They deposited checks, looked around, and shopped on their breaks. It was a wonderful sort of commerce chaos where students could shop at Walmart, Delta Airlines, Exotic Metals, Nordstrom and more. They could adopt stuffed animals as pets. The UPS workers ran around delivering packages and notes. A lawyer investigated a crime. The mayor made speeches and the tax collector kid walked around collecting taxes from individuals with his hand held device.

In the afternoon, everyone was issued a second paycheck with direct deposit. BECU slowed WAY down. Consumers only came to check their balances or take out more cash for the places that did not accept their debit cards.

And here is where I’m circling back to AI.

I had noticed that BizTown felt far behind the digital world in the video training and then again as the bankers-for-a-day worked with Chromebooks to set up payroll and cut paper paychecks. The kids had checkbooks with a register, deposit slips, and checks. They had filled the checks and deposit slips out in advance with their teachers.

I couldn't remember the last time I’d used a deposit slip though I am Gen X and still do write checks now and again. Although I often tried, I never was good at keeping my checkbook balanced with those registers and admired the teachers and students for the effort to do that even for one day.

It was hard, however, not to think of how unlikely it is that the kids will record their transactions by hand in a paper booklet. It’s possible that they’ll get a paper check or two in their lives, but I’m betting they’ll use the app on their phones and cameras to make deposits like I finally started doing this year. I noticed many other (and probably younger) parents commented on this below those YouTube training sessions.

I’m not arguing that it wasn’t valuable for them to walk through the old ways at least once. I think it will help them to do the math and see how transactions today work in a way that is based somewhat on the ways I learned decades ago.

But things have changed. We are not going back to writing daily paper checks any more than we are going back to photos taken on film that you brought to a Fotomat. (Remember those?)

fotomat stand in a parking lot with 99 cent film deal advertised

Like all changes, there are some real risks and things to consider. We may even need to make some new rules for ourselves as humans going forward like we have every time things change. It’s probably best if we start thinking of and talking about these right away.

I’m going to turn those thoughts over a bit in my next posts.

For now, I’ll show you that banana slug piece ChatGPT wrote while pretending to be me. Here’s the prompt my cousin gave to AI:

“Write a blog post on the joy of finding a banana slug on a walk as the morning light increases in the style of Karrie Ann Zylstra Myton.”

Here’s what it came up with along with a photo I found in the public domain:

yellow banana slug

"It was just another early morning walk in the woods, the sun slowly starting to peek through the trees as I took in the peaceful sounds of nature. And then, there it was - a glimmer of yellow, caught in the corner of my eye. I couldn't believe my luck as I approached, realizing I had stumbled upon a banana slug, its vibrant yellow body glistening in the increasing light.

As I knelt down to observe this curious creature, I was struck by its beauty and grace, slowly making its way along a fallen tree branch. I watched in awe as it took in its surroundings, and I couldn't help but feel a sense of joy in that moment.

The banana slug is often seen as a simple and even slimy creature, but there is so much more to it than meets the eye. These fascinating mollusks play an important role in our ecosystem, breaking down dead plant matter and adding nutrients to the soil. They are also a food source for birds, squirrels, and other animals in the forest.

In a world that can often seem overwhelming and fast-paced, taking a moment to stop and appreciate the beauty of the natural world can be a grounding and rejuvenating experience. The joy of discovering a banana slug on my walk reminded me to slow down and appreciate the little wonders of life.

So, next time you're out on a walk, keep an eye out for these slippery delights. Who knows what joy and wonder you might discover.

"Life is a journey, enjoy the ride.""

I’m still bothered by some of the word choices and punctuation that I would not choose for myself. The ending cliche with a comma splice makes me cringe. But there are a few lines that might be mine—lines that I even like.

I intend to face the latest digital changes with as much courage and optimism as I can. To do that, I’m going to see if I can mentally picture those 6th graders running into BizTown, all excited for what the world will bring for them.

This seems like a good way for me to approach the changes and also a reminder that how the adults of today address emerging tech matters to the next generations. I have lived too long to have their unquestioning trust in systems and my measured skepticism, I'm sure, is healthy.

We do need to think about how to set up our world so that our children can thrive and find fulfilling jobs with living wages like the ones they pretended to have in BizTown or something better.

For now, I’m writing all my own posts with spell check and the auto grammar check for digital help. I get annoyed by the word suggestions and can type what I want faster than I can remember how to hit tab to accept my email program’s suggestions.

And I have to confess that as I start this series, I already feel as worn out as I did after that kindergarten field trip to Woodland Park Zoo in 2017. Quinton's teacher caught me looking like this on the bus ride home...

woman in hat sleeping on school bus seat with small child sleeping on her lap

Change can be exhilarating and exhausting at the very same time—just like an elementary school field trip.

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