Yesterday afternoon, I had the opportunity to attend the first ever National Writing Project Hack Jam, an exploration of the opportunities to fiddle with text and writing and code on the Internet. It was a useful event for me, as we were able to think and play with ideas about what “hacking” means right now, and how it’s about reading and writing and thinking.
We started the day in table groups with a box of Monopoly and a simple task – hack the game. Chad and Meenoo explained that our task was to fiddle with the rules until we found a game that was better than the one we were handed – and so Sandy and Gail and I tinkered our way through a version of Monopoly that was all about freebies. Other groups fiddled to make the game about tossing pieces and giving to charity. It was good1.
But the point of the hacking was to give us an opportunity to explore that games and systems have rules – rules that were made by people. And we can mess with those rules if we understand the underlying principles involved. That’s powerful learning – and applies not just to board games, but to school, and to work, and to civic engagement and to computer systems or the Internet.
Hacking matters. Douglas Rushkoff would say that we need to Program or Be Programmed, but I’d fiddle with that statement and say instead that we need to hack or be hacked. Someone made the rules and systems of the Internet, power structures, as John Spencer called them during out conversation yesterday. And, as others have said before, we’ve got to help our students fiddle with them, understand them, and, hopefully, change them.
We moved from that work into a visual exploration of our definition of hacker – folks focused on several things, but I was reminded of MacGyver, and thought of duct tape and wrenches and making things out of what we’ve available. Purposeful play.
My first thought is that hacking sounds like an important idea, but really? Do we need another word that takes teachers out of the mainstream “common core” standards conversation? Does hacking get my students more college-ready? Like gaming, isn’t hacking just another thing that pushes the risk-takers into the margins, and makes risk-adverse teachers run? How do we find a way to be more inclusive in our language and processes? Is it just a language thing? What else might we call hacking?
Later on, Paul continues3:
So part of why we hack has to do with understanding our sources more deeply, and this is absolutely an academic concern. But don’t we need words like “analytical reading” and carefully sourced research? Right so what else might we call hacking? It’s about creativity, but it’s also about making new things by really understanding the old, and this is a traditional, academic exercise.
I’m looking for language that will encourage the risk-adverse teacher to join with us in these enterprises.
And that’s what I leave thinking about. Hacking matters. Academic reading and writing matter. And they’re not unrelated things. Groups like the National Writing Project know an awful lots about good reading and writing practice, and are exploring thoughtfully things like gaming and hacking – but can they do so in a way that doesn’t scare off the “risk-adverse teacher,” as Paul asks?
I think we need the National Writing Project and folks like them to help navigate these spaces, and to explore them thoughtfully with teachers – and to help folks recognize that reading and writing and thinking and gaming and hacking are related – but in a way that doesn’t lead to further fragmentation and paradox. I think we need teachers to play, like we played in the Hack Jam, with the rules and ideas that affect them.
Yes, let’s teach kids to hack. Both the Internet and Shakespeare. Minecraft and Fitzgerald. Wordle and essay. Picture and paragraph. Logarithm and link. Tweets and Tennyson. Second Life and the State Legislature. It’s a big world.
Worth doing. If you get the chance to attend a future NWP Hack Jam – you should go. I’ll see you there.