How Robots in English Class Can Spark Empathy and Improve Writing

Mention robots to many English teachers and they’ll immediately point down the hall to the science classroom or to the makerspace, if they have one. At many schools, if there’s a robot at all, it’s located in a science or math classroom or is being built by an after-school robotics club. It’s not usually a fixture in English classrooms. But as teachers continue to work at finding new entry points to old material for their students, robots are proving to be a great interdisciplinary tool that builds collaboration and literacy skills.

“For someone like me who teaches literature by lots of dead white guys, teaching programming adds relevance to my class,” said Jessica Herring, a high school English teacher at Benton High School in Arkansas. Herring first experimented using Sphero, essentially a programmable ball, when her American literature class was studying the writing of early settlers. Herring pushed the desks back and drew a maze on the floor with tape representing the journey from Europe to the New World. Her students used class iPads and an introductory manually guided app to steer their Spheros through the maze.

Herring, like many English teachers, was skeptical about how the Sphero robot could be a useful teaching tool in her classroom. She thought that type of technology would distract students from the core skills of reading, writing and analyzing literature. But she decided to try it after hearing about the success of another English teacher across the country.

“The conversation we had afterwards about those explorers coming to the New World was really amazing,” Herring said during a presentation on her experiences at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference. Because students had struggled to keep their Spheros in the maze, they understood in a personal way how frustrating it must have been for early settlers who got lost, backtracked and eventually made it to a new land.

“They went from piloting these robots to talking about these bigger ideas and having this empathy for people in history,” Herring said. Students commented that they could understand why the Puritans had to believe in a higher power while making the journey, and expressed respect for their tenacity. Herring began to see how the Spheros could give students a more visceral point of connection to themes in the books they were studying, and began scheming more ways to connect programming to reflection and writing.

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