Sample Course Outline

Introduction

Like so many subjects, teaching students to use JIFFEE requires that topics be covered in a logical progression. This outline suggests one such ordering which has been proven in practice, and it also gives you an idea of how much material can be covered based on experience with real students. (For more general helpful ideas, see Tips and Techniques for Teaching Interactive Fiction.)

Bear in mind that the pacing of this outline is based on the following assumptions:

Expect to make adjustments depending on your students' backgrounds and your educational goals. For example, if you have more time but want to put even more focus on language skills, you might use the extra time for adding more locations (thus providing more writing practice) rather than adding technical depth.

For Citizen Teachers doing a Citizen Schools apprenticeship: I try hard to test JIFFEE and keep it as reliable as I can, but if you run into a situation where you think you've found a bug in JIFFEE, please email the relevant game file to me at mike@jiffeegames.com. If it's a real bug I'll do my best to fix it, and if it isn't perhaps I can improve the documentation to help the next teacher.

General Advice

If your students have any exposure to theater, you can apply a number of those concepts to explaining how JIFFEE games work:

If you have more than one instructor, alternate who is talking. Anything that introduces a bit of variety reduces the chance of boredom, plus it can be really valuable for the students to hear a second perspective or a second way of explaining something.

Week 1

Before students can hope to create an Interactive Fiction game, they must have a basic understanding of the genre. The best way to do this is for them to play an IF game, and this is also a good way to get them engaged in the class in the first 10-15 minutes.

The sample game at http://jiffeegames.com/games/sunny-day/sunny-day-en.html is a good tool for this. This isn't a test, so the time will be more productive if you give the students a few hints and encourage them trade ideas on how to solve the puzzles.

The day before class:

30 Minutes before class: During class: At the end of class:

Week 2

The second hour is a continuation of the first, to give them additional practice playing IF. Two hours seems like a lot of time to devote to this (in this example, about 20% of the total class time), and it is, but if you cut this short the students won't really understand what it is they're supposed to be doing.

Before class:

During class:

Warning: This paragraph is a spoiler. To win the game, get the shovel from the basement, go up to the attic and read (don't pick up) the treasure map, use the pitcher from the dining room to get water from either the kitchen or bathroom, water the plant in the bedroom, when the bees go to the plant take the key from the bedroom, then go dig up the backyard, unlock the chest, open it, and read the stock certificate.

Week 3

This is where the students get to start writing their own stuff. The focus is on technical issues this week, i.e. just getting something to work, so don't worry about the details of the writing.

Since this is where the real "material" starts, you may be tempted to stand at the board and lecture. Resist that temptation! It's OK to talk frequently, but don't talk for long. Alternate short periods of a couple of minutes of instruction with short periods of practice.

Before the class:

During class:

If some students are progressing faster than others, they can create additional locations, or you can guide them to write richer and more detailed descriptions.

If the whole class is moving more quickly or slowly than this outline, don't worry about it. Stay with the suggested order-of-presentation, but be flexible with the pacing.

Week 4

This week the focus will be more on the writing. Encourage the students to be creative and give them as much freedom as you can, subject to whatever standards are appropriate for your situation. The standard I use is basically: Games are not allowed to contain anything that is illegal (e.g. illicit drugs), is obscene, looks like a weapon, or is immoral (including harm or threat of harm to any creature that can feel pain).

During class:

Week 5

This week is for adding "props", i.e. objects that can be picked up, moved around, and examined. (The analogy to props in a theater production is very deliberate.)

During class:

If you haven't already been doing this, start reading all the code that the students are writing. Make sure you read the stuff written by the all the kids, even the quiet ones that never have to ask for help. If a student is having emotional problems it sometimes comes out in their writing, and this is an opportunity to get them the help (e.g. from a school counselor) they might need. (Citizen School CTs: You are not expected to do such counseling yourself, but you can notify your school liaison of anything you think they should be aware of.)

Week 6

The topic for this week is customization. If you're running behind schedule, you can skip this entire lesson and move directly to Week 7.

During class:

Week 7

This week we introduce verbs, which allow the player to do more than just move around and pick stuff up. In addition to teaching the technical aspects of how verbs work, as a teacher you will have another job this week: guiding and moderating the students' ambitions, since once they catch on to the flexibility of defining their own verbs they will come up with ideas far beyond what can reasonably be accomplished in the time available. You'll need to help them select a subset of their initial ideas and guide them to setting reachable goals.

Expect progress to be noticeably slower this week, because verbs are inherently more complex than the nouns we've been working with up to now. I've tried different approaches and have concluded that it isn't just a matter of more complex syntax; verbs are just plain harder because they involve a lot of interaction between different things and a lot of conditional action. There is a level of abstraction involved here which adults can usually handle but which is still quite a challenge for kids who haven't even hit high school yet. You'll have to strike a balance unique to your students to challenge without frustrating.

If you can avoid sounding like you're on a soapbox, you can use this as as an example of how things worth doing often are harder but that that shouldn't stop you from learning to do them.

One specific topic that may be helpful to talk about is the distinction between "the description of a place" (which is constant) and "the location of a prop" (which varies). Sometimes students will include something like "there is a big ugly monster in the corner of the room" and then get confused when they try to make the monster move around.

During class:

Week 8

In a ten-week Citizen Schools apprenticeship, week 8 is the last week to add anything significant to the games. Don't be surprised if the students are disappointed that the couldn't add everything they wanted to the game, so don't be shy about pointing out how much they have accomplished and can be proud of.

During class:

  • Collect the maps for safe keeping.
  • Have one student update the progress graphic.

    Week 9

    This week is allocated for preparing the end-of-class presentation, if you have one. The most talkative students in the class sometimes suddenly forget how to speak as soon as they are in front of a group (I've seen students literally hide behind a large visual aid), so be prepared to help them with making an outline and working from notes.

    This is also a good time to review vocabulary. If you want to, making up a list ahead of time, handing it out in class, and going over the whole list is not a bad idea.

    During class:

    Week 10

    The final week is devoted to polishing the students' writing (English, not JavaScript). Despite the fact that writing a JIFFEE game looks like an exercise in computer programming (and it is), it is also very much intended to be a way of getting kids to practice and improve their language skills.

    The whole idea of getting something really polished may be an alien concept to some students, so don't be surprised if they fix one little mistake and announce that they're done. Be patient, but be persistent, and make them keep working on things (e.g. each sentence) until they really have it right. Point out that the world will judge them based on the words they write, and that on the web even more than in real life you only have one chance to make a good first impression.

    During class:

    Possible Variations

    To increase the variety, you may want to split the material from weeks 9 and 10 and between the two weeks, i.e. do both some presentation practice and some language work during each week. Better yet, you might want to start covering presentation skills much earlier and just do a few minutes each week rather than bunching it all up at the end.

    Spreading out the language "polish" work can also be an advantage, because while you are working one-on-one with a student, others can be doing something else (like adding more places or props).

    If the final presentation is done science-fair style, with audience members wandering through at irregular intervals, it can work better to have each student sit at a laptop and give personalized demonstrations to 1-3 viewers at a time. This is more flexible, and it gives each student more intense practice doing presentation while at the same reducing the pressure and anxiety level because they're not in front of a big group.