AI in elementary schools

Resist or join in? 

By Taylor Trost

“Terrified doesn’t even begin to describe it,” shared a fellow elementary school co-worker when asked about AI, or artificial intelligence, in classrooms. “It’s going to take over, we can’t control the usage, and how in the world are we supposed to monitor it?”  

When it comes to the educational discussion around systems like ChatGPT, both sides can easily create a laundry list of why the programming is either going to save modern education or ruin it. 

From what I have observed, the conversation became a more mainstream discussion point a few years ago, as high school students became aware of the newest technology. The implications of their usage weighed heavily on upper grade level teachers as they asked, “How can we ensure our students are actually doing the work assigned and able to show us their understanding of the content we have taught?”  

With time, some corners of the high school and middle school educational landscape began acknowledging, and even integrating, AI’s capabilities into the classroom. Teaching older students how to use these programs as a tool, not a crutch, when writing or developing ideas has been a common theme within the conversation, acknowledging that this technology isn’t going anywhere. If anything, weaving AI into lesson planning and curricular design, when done well, can support the idea of truly developing 21st century learners.  

However, shielded from these heated debates have been the elementary school teachers. When you spend your days elbows deep in multiplication, introducing children to their newest favorite chapter book series, and fostering so many incredible “firsts” each day, the scary world of AI technology has seemingly floated right by us. As high school educators have been exploring how to embed these programs into their practice to lighten the daunting teacher workload, we in the lower grades (for the most part) haven’t truly been faced with the AI “takeover” on a daily basis.  

AI felt comfortably foreign to me as a fourth grade teacher until I was listening in on children’s chatter during recess duty. In between big jumps off the monkey bars, nine-year-olds were discussing how they were writing silly stories with AI over the weekend.  

Shocked, I brought the question to my sweet fourth grade class: “How many of you have heard of AI before?” When surveyed, nearly 80% of my fourth graders already had an understanding of what AI is. Many could rattle off the names of popular AI generator websites, and shared stories of how they have already used them. To me, this was what made it clear: I must get involved, but how? 

Technology in the digital age has a common theme: If the children are familiar with it before the adults, we’re already too late. With so many different apps, websites, and digital resources available to students, we have a responsibility as their educators to be generally aware of what is in their hands.  

Since it was made abundantly clear I was already behind the ball, it became my new mission to explore. I wasn’t quite ready to jump headfirst into bringing the world of AI into my classroom, but I felt the nagging importance to develop my understanding of it. If we know what we are “working” with, we can guide our students through the system, instead of frantically backtracking to protect them years down the line. Playing around with the technology for ourselves helps us as teachers be better equipped to predict the roadblocks, screen the nature of the content for our students, and expose them to AI in a way that is intentional and supported by adult supervision.  

Yet, it still gave me pause. When it comes to sharing AI with our younger students, there is a rightful hesitation. There is a level of unpredictability when it comes to the maturity level of content, themes or ideas that are generated through this technology. I tend to err on the side of over-caution, so putting AI directly in the hands of nine- and ten-year-olds didn’t, and still doesn’t, sit comfortably in my mind. Yet, we as elementary school teachers can’t isolate ourselves from the usefulness of these programs.  

“If I am not entirely comfortable with the students using AI directly,” I thought, “how can I incorporate these programs behind the scenes to make my tasks less daunting, or my lessons more engaging?” 

If you are feeling my hesitation, below are ways I have tried to implement different artificial intelligence systems into my own practice. When presenting anything AI related with your younger students, I find it easier to do the generating “behind the scenes.” Meaning, I will use the program on my computer while disconnected from my projector, or prior to the lesson, and carefully review that it is appropriate for the age level and purpose. Once it has been marked “all-clear” by my standards, I will then display it for students. If you want to get your feet wet, I hope one of these three ideas can serve as your starting point. 

AI picture prompts 

When working on narrative writing, I had students tell me information as a class that would generate a picture prompt for us to center our writing on. Students gave me descriptions of a character (either an animal or a person), a setting description or color, objects to be included and emotions to consider. Because it was for my fourth graders, I included the word “cartoon” to keep the style of the image light and young.  

This became our focus for both planning and writing stories. The engagement was top-notch, and the pictures were easy to develop in real time “off-screen” before sharing with the class. For this, any “AI Image Generator” will do! I personally gave OpenArtAI a try.  

Creating texts 

Have you ever been looking for the perfect mentor text, but you just can’t find exactly what you’re looking for? Using AI to generate stories to use in the classroom has been such a time saver for me.  

We have used AI-created stories to annotate aspects of different writing genres and have utilized AI pieces as exemplars to be referenced during our writing process. I have even asked AI to include specific grammatical mistakes in some stories that match our current and previous grammar/conventions units as editing practice. MagicSchool AI and ChatGPT have both been helpful programs for this purpose.  

To get the best results, I suggest including a Lexile level, story length and grade level for the technology to properly tailor the writing to your audience. You can even take it a step further, as many AI tools will generate both open-ended and multiple-choice questions for you!  

Lesson planning 

Thorough and effective lesson planning can be an overwhelming task. If you’re anything like me, you like to mix it up year to year to keep the activities fresh. When you enter a standard, objective and brief description of the lesson plan, AI can suggest different hands-on or group work activities to try with your students. Just be sure to indicate some guidance for the type of activities you’re looking for. I have also entered the standard I am working on with a description of my lesson steps, and AI has generated student objectives for me in “Students will be able to…” format. 

Don’t be intimidated: start small 

Teachers are, to their core, extraordinarily hard-working professionals. But sometimes, hard work just isn’t enough to stay afloat during the busier weeks. As the lesson creating, shoe-tying, conflict deescalating, multitasking grown-up in the room, something has got to give when it comes to your to-do list. When the workload takes over, the magic of our jobs is hard to see through the running list in our minds of what needs to get done and when. When incorporating AI into your lesson planning and daily routines, there is an opportunity to relieve some of that task pressure, while also exposing yourself to relevant technology.  

If I have learned anything as I have started my AI journey, it’s to not be intimidated by the programming and find a small idea to start with. By doing so, I feel better equipped to introduce AI carefully and meaningfully to my students in age-appropriate ways, as this technology will no doubt grow alongside them as 21st century learners.  

As you explore, I hope it adds to your practice, while also giving you more time to enjoy teaching and laughing with those young learners in front of you. 

Taylor Trost is a fourth grade teacher at Grace Norton Elementary School in Hightstown and recently received the Milken Educator Award. She is a member of the East Windsor Education Association. Trost can be reached at