Author: Majoki

“What do you know? You’re older than Google.”

A pretty spicy thing for a second grader to say on the third day of school, but Katella had a point. I was born in 1993, five years before the nascent don’t-be-evil search engine forced us to learn the word “algorithm.” And though most of us have a preschooler’s understanding of the term, we still seem content to trust the search results Google serves up to us. Which is comparable to asking your drug dealer, “Are there any nasty side effects?”

An unhealthy proposition for sure, and I wanted to explain these things to Katella, but even though she has the dismissive air of a middle schooler, she’s only eight. And all her classmates seated on the carpet at my feet are looking between the two of us with varying expressions of concern, amusement, and sleepiness.

I’m the adult in the room. I’m supposed to be the caring, open-minded, accepting teacher, but I could feel my classroom control toppling. And Katella was pushing hard against it.

“ChatGPT, Bard, Bing, Claude, Khanmigo, Pi, Poe. They know everything. Why listen to you?” she challenged.

Like a ratty jacket left on a muddy playground, I lost my patience. I went old school on Katella, totally pre-Google, pre-Microsoft, pre-IBM, pre-abacus. I sternly rose out of my big, comfy reading chair and ever-so-slowly sat down with the kids on the carpet that sported all 50 states in kaleidoscope colors. Right on beyond-burnt-orange Texas. Oh, it was on. Wild, wild west on.

“Okay, Katella. Why listen to me? Let’s hear what you have to say about how we should learn in school. Please take my seat.”

I thought putting Katella on the spot would stymie her. I thought she’d realize she’d poked the wrong mama bear. I thought she’d be humbled. But I was older than Google, and I did not anticipate the algorithms this eight-year-old was operating by.

She sprang up, retrieved her backpack from her cubby, and climbed into my reading chair. Her classmates were squirming excitedly, but staying oddly attentive. A few surreptitiously eyed me with what might have been concern. Or pity.

Katella unzipped her backpack and pulled out–

“Owly!” her bestie Leander squealed. The other students erupted in delight, “Owly! Owly! Owly!”

Brandishing a fuzzy brown and gold plush owl with enormous digital eyes that blinked and moved as if taking in the classroom, Katella smiled proudly. “That’s right! This is my owl. She’s very special, and smart, and she helps me learn.”

It was beyond obvious that my class was very curious, as was I, so I threw Katella a softball question: “Does your toy owl have a name?”

Katella huffed. “She’s not a toy, Ms. Flint. She’s a teaching tool. Her name is Ai-thena, as in AI for artificial intelligence. But I call her Owly. My mom made her.”

At this point, my teacher spidey senses began not only tingling, they started jangling every nerve in my body. But, I managed to keep my voice calm, “That’s impressive, Katella, How did your mom make her?”

“She’s an AI engineer. She made Owly to help me learn.” Then, in the solidarity gesture known to all first-time messiahs, she swept her free arm towards her rapt classmates. “To help us all learn.”

“But that’s my job,” I sweetly reminded.

Ignoring me, Katella spoke to Ai-thena, “Owly, what’s the best way to teach reading to second graders?”

As if in a burst of inspiration, the owl’s eyes flashed rapidly, and in a soft, no-nonsense voice, Ai-thena explained, “Current research and best practice demonstrate that a comprehensive literacy approach balancing phonological awareness and whole language development will lead to the most successful reading outcomes. I have a very fun and engaging lesson ready. Shall we begin?”

“But that’s my job,” I shamefully pleaded.

Their backs now fully turned on me, my second graders focused their brightly burning eyes on Ai-thena, and their final-frontier future, as Katella triumphantly hooted, “Let’s see what Owly has to say about that.”