Reflections on Facilitation of a Summer Youth Writing Program

WMWP Summer Youth Writing Program 2020: Interactive Fiction

Some observations and reflections 

https://sites.google.com/view/interactivefiction/home 

Positives of shift to online

  • Youth participants were all ready to write every day (opting in to a writing program)
  • No geographic limitations for participation (one from China, with connection to local school)
  • Opportunity for guest presenters (National Park Service Ranger Scott Gausen did a presentation on NPS that led into writing activity)
  • Technology possibilities (different sites, platforms, collaboration, etc.)
  • Combination of (offline) writing notebooks, Zoom chat, and other sites (and media)
  • Mentor texts and tutorials seemed most helpful
  • Lots of Icebreaker activities 
  • The theme of the program (Interactive Fiction) took advantage of technology and distance situation (lots of room for supported, but independent work)
  • Regular email messaging (short information daily) with parents and youth writers together was seen as appreciated by families

Challenges of shift to online

  • Not knowing kids beforehand, meeting only via video, was odd
  • Technological hurdles (nothing we could not overcome) — but mobile vs computer, access/sharing links to sites, slow Internet speeds, helping a student work through an issue from afar (zoom), protected school Chromebooks, etc.
  • Creating the right pacing (over-prepare) of writing activities
  • Hard to read the Zoom room (some kept video off, for Internet reasons, or from typical camp shyness)
  • Two hours each day seemed a lot (even with breaks and offline writing)

What I’d Do Different

  • More use of Break Out Rooms for small group (or individual conferencing)
  • More use of daily Exit Slips to get a sense of my pacing (too fast/too slow/just right)
  • How to better encourage sharing of writing with people you don’t know
  • Ask for student emails (with parent permission) during registration process to make setting up programs/sites easier
  • Mail something (prompt or maybe even a Flat Stanley-ish thing) to each person beforehand with a fun activity to bring in on day one

Typical Day Format

  • Icebreaker/Brainstorming activity
  • Writing into the Day (prompts) and sharing
  • Technology Lesson
  • Playing around time with Tech
  • Break
  • Focus on a larger project (writing process)
  • Sharing
  • Writing out of the Day (if time)

Peace (reflecting to remember),
Kevin

Interactive Fiction with Young Writers (a resource site)

Interactive Fiction Resource SiteLast week, I was immersed in an online summer youth writing program for middle school writers through the Western Massachusetts Writing Project. My topic: Interactive Fiction (with a focus on ‘choose your own ending’ formats). I had 12 young writers with me on a daily journey via Zoom of writing, exploring, creating and sharing.

I created this online resource site with tutorials on the three main platforms that we used: Inklewriter, Twine and Google Slides.  There are also some student examples at the top. Feel free to use and share anything that might be helpful. I’ll share out some reflections of running an online summer writing program in a few days.

Go to Interactive Fiction resource site

I’d also like to give a huge shout-out to my thinking partner on designing this online program (an offshoot of a project I do in the classroom with my own students ) to Bryan Coyle, a teacher-consultant with the Minnesota Writing Project.

I had learned through the National Writing Project network (via Twitter) that Bryan was also doing an Interactive Fiction summer program, in the weeks before me, and so he and I chatted via email about program design. Bryan was so generous in sharing his resources, and I was able to adapt some of his work for my own program. He also wrote me a lengthy email after his program ended, reflecting on what worked for him and what didn’t, offering advice on how to proceed in an online environment with young writers one has never met. I am most grateful for the connection.

Peace (make a choice),
Kevin

Interactive Fiction: Story-Wrestling with AI Dungeon

Someone on Mastodon shared out that a new interactive fiction game app – AI Dungeon — was free for a limited time (still is, as far as I know, for now), so I took the plunge and tried it out. It’s quite fascinating, as the AI software brain spins an elaborate story from your text-based responses, questions, actions. There were some basic themes built into the game but I decided to test out a more open-ended option and set my story of a musician/spy into motion.

Here was the initial story set-up I set into motion:

You are a traveling musician who has been sent to spy on a neighboring kingdom. The road you travel brings you through many small villages. You meet many other musicians, and maybe more than a few spies. What do you do?

As I understand it, after a bit of research and computation, the AI brain sends story narrative back based on its interpretation of my actions within the game. Hints in the game suggest that more complex the user language/words are, the more the AI will learn and adapt to the story.

Interestingly, there were definitely times when I could feel the AI tugging my story into its known corners — I ended up in a cave a few times — as opposed to truly letting my activities guide the story forward on its own path. The AI writing itself was remarkable coherent, for the most part, although sometimes, when it either provided dialogue or used mine, things got a bit convoluted in the context of who was speaking.

The developer site explains (and deeper technical explanation here):

AIDungeon2 is a first of its kind AI generated text adventure. Using a 1.5B parameter machine learning model called GPT-2 AIDungeon2 generates the story and results of your actions as you play in this virtual world.
Unlike virtually every other game in existence, you are not limited by the imagination of the developer in what you can do. Any thing you can express in language can be your action and the AI dungeon master will decide how the world responds to your actions.

It took me some time to find a rhythm of my own, to stay true to my sense of character (actually, I’m still doing that as I keep playing) — I’d have them (me?) pull out a guitar or saxophone or harmonica, now and then, and use music to discover mystery — and not let the AI be the one in charge of the story. It was a bit of story-wrestling, in a fun way.

At this moment (as I write this blog post), this is what happened after I played my saxophone:

You play the saxophone, which causes the water around you to ripple slightly. Suddenly, a bright light shines through the hole in the rocks. You look out into darkness and see a tall figure emerge from the cave entrance. It’s face is covered with black hair and its skin is pale white.

After a few mornings of “playing the story,” I still had not gotten too far into where my character was actually going and trying to do (other than spy), and why they were going there, although I had met my fair share of interesting characters (again, some seemed to have been yanked from some other game world into my own) and entered some intriguing rooms. I broke mirrors, used keys, sent messages via guitar string, ran from one person and found another person, took a horse for a ride, and more — all with text-based storytelling, guided by AI database.

I’d love to see where AI Dungeon goes. It’s still being developed and the brothers behind the company hope to fund their project through Patreon. I can’t afford the $5 month, their lowest tier (I wish there were something even lower, but I feel like a cheapskate even suggesting that), but if there’s a way to keep playing and supporting a version, I’ll do it.

You can read my story from a link generated by the app (you don’t seem to need the app to read the story, which is helpful).

Peace (playing it),
Kevin

Design and Story: Mapping Interactive Fiction

Interactive Fiction Story Design Maps

My sixth graders are in the midst of building out Interactive Fiction stories via Google Slides, weaving in narrative design and hyperlinks choices for the reader to “play” the story with. The early stages of this project involve design mapping, of charting out all of the possibilities of the story and then using the map to build the story. The theme of our stories are mysterious archeological digs, or discovered civilizations (real or invented), and the stories are told in second person narrative point of view.

If you are curious about what these stories look like, this is a post at our class blog site with some projects from last year.

Here is one I made to share with students as my example:

Peace (this way and that),
Kevin

Mentor Interactive Fiction Text: The Place of Lost Bones

Interactive Fiction Cave Map

As I wrote the other day, my students are in the midst of creating Interactive Fiction stories. Many are done while some are finishing up. It’s almost always the case that as they are doing a new project, I am doing the assignment with them. Here, I built out a story for them to play, and for me to use as a way to talk about Interactive Story construction in Google Slides.

The map above is part of a map-making activity in which students take a break from building the stories and take a fresh look at the setting by making a map of the terrain. This was my map for my story down below.

Plus, it was fun to write. The best way to play/read these is to go full-screen mode.

Peace (choose the way),
Kevin

Interactive Fiction: Mapping All Possibilities

Greece Interactive Story Map

We’re in the middle of a small digital writing unit on Interactive Fiction, which is a “choose your own ending” sort of storytelling, using Google Slides and Hyperlinks as a way to publish a story.

Wolves Interactive Story Map

As much as I enjoy the final products — a story with choices for the reader, told in second person narrative — I truly love viewing the mapping by students of the possibilities. These maps lay bare the thinking, the possibilities of story. You can see an overview of the narrative arcs, the thinking behind the stories.

Dungeon Interactive Story Map

We get to this point of story mapping by first reading Interactive Stories and mapping out the journey into the story as a reader, noting where branches are and what paths we took. Then, they flip their role, making maps before writing the actual story for others to read.

Chamber Interactive Story Map

The theme of the project is a discovery of ancient ruins, and the reader is the traveler in the story, finding adventure and mystery as they move along through the story of choices.

Most of my students really enjoy this writing, as it is very different from traditional pieces we do, but a few do struggle with the unconventionality of it. That’s OK, too, for what I am trying to show them is that writing is not one form, but many forms and always adaptable.

That is a choice the writer has (although, not always in school, unfortunately)

Peace (take the path),
Kevin

Six Word Slice of Life: From Design Flow to Interactive Story

(For this month’s Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I am aiming to do Six Word Slices most days, with some extended slices on other days.)

Context: I wrote the other day about the ways my sixth graders were making design plans to create Interactive Fiction stories inside Google Slides. Since then, they have been working hard to bring the stories to fruition, and by yesterday, many were finishing up the writing and proofreading of their stories. I enjoy this time of reading the finished game/stories, after so much work with conferencing on narrative ideas and technical assistance.

Six Word Slice of Life Student Stories

You can read a few of their stories (It’s best to go full screen to experience the pieces … use the hyperlinks to move along the narrative choices):

 

Peace (make a choice),
Kevin

Six Word Slice of Life: Story Branches

(For this month’s Slice of Life Challenge with Two Writing Teachers, I am aiming to do Six Word Slices most days, with some extended slices on other days.)

Context: We began our unit this week on Interactive Fiction, stories where there are “branches” or choices to be made, and every decision sends you on another path. A few kids have read these stories, and some immediately connect to the narrative arcs of video games, but for others, this is a whole new way of thinking of reading, and then writing, a story. So, I begin with read-aloud, and as a class, we make choices on the flow of a story — this one is called The Green Slime. On the board, I map out the choices we make, showing in visual fashion the various “branches” of the story. Four classes, one book, four very different maps.

Six Word Slice of Life Branches

Peace (branches for support),
Kevin

Book Review: Child Labor Reform Movement (An Interactive History Adventure)

To call this an “adventure,” as the subtitle does, seems awfully odd to me, but Child Labor Reform Movement (An Interactive History Adventure) by Steven Otfinoski does effectively use the elements of interactive fiction by giving the reader choices. Unfortunately, as you might guess from the title, nearly all of the choices end badly, as the book explores the horrible working conditions of children in the workforce during the 1800s.

I appreciated the historical, archival photographs sprinkled throughout this book (with three main story paths and 23 different possible endings). The photos, coupled with the stories and narrative choices (we call them branches when my students make their own Interactive Fiction stories) really draws the reader into the experience of a young child living, working and then mostly dying in an unfair system in which children were regularly abused in many ways.

That said, the book is very effective in its rhetorical design, and is written for an upper elementary/middle school audience.

The reader can “become” a pauper’s apprentice in England, signing away their childhood for awful living conditions; a factory girl in Massachusetts; or a newsie in New York City. The narrative keeps circling back and you realize that no choice is a good choice, because children working in these conditions had no agency or choice, only the need to survive (which many did not).

Historical anecdotes and research dot this book, and it makes clear the movement that came along to try to change the way children were used in the work force. Much has changed for the better, at least in First World countries, but a final word from the author notes that, according to a report by the International Labor Organization, there are still about 246 million children working in places around the world. That should open the eyes of young readers.

Peace (let children be children),
Kevin