H Files Installment 4: Hacking Hamlet

That title sounds so, well, violent, doesn’t it? (But after all, there actually is lots of hacking in Hamlet as it turns out.) Suspend your judgment for a just a few more lines while I think this through.

I spent much of the morning Skyping with my friend Bud Hunt of budtheteacher fame about hacking, making, and playing, and what it might mean to be Connected Learning “ambassadors” on behalf of the National Writing Project. (Our friend Paul Oh promises we get to wear a sash. We are so in.)

During our conversation, I asked Bud about a million questions as I am wont to do every time we talk. (He has a big ole brain.) He in turn sent me about a billion URLs as he is wont to do. He was exalting hackers when I stopped him. “Wait a minute, hacking=bad, right? Enlighten me.”

And he did, basically by explaining that the definition of hacking has expanded to include the act of  changing a system in order to improve it. He sent me to this wikipedia entry, where I found the following definition:

Over the course of 2011, the word “hacker” gained a fourth meaning, generally referring to someone who challenges the existing order, most often using science, engineering, or information technology.

We went on to have this crazy conversation about what it would mean to hack the curriculum. In the course of it, we came to the conclusion that, yes indeedy, Jenny, her students, and I are hacking the heck out of Hamlet. That is, we are attempting to disrupt conventional (and in my opinion, ineffective) curricular systems for teaching Shakespeare and are instead approaching the play from a stance that combines inquiry, hacking, making, and playing.

According to Bud, such a stance can facilitate learner agency. Here’s my favorite part of a great little blog post he wrote called In Search of Agency. :

Hacking and making and playing are how you figure out where the constraints are, and how you might be able to fiddle with them.  As well as what happens when you do.  These skills/habits/attitudes/frames of thinking are useful when thinking about developing agency.

And I think that’s what Jenny and I have been most excited to see this week–evidence that we’ve helped the kids develop agency in engaging with Shakespeare for godsake in the merry month of May for godsake.

(Actually, I think I believe that agency is just latent, and that we haven’t so much developed it in kids as we have helped them tap it. I’m getting an image now of dowsers. Do curriculum hackers design learning environments that equip kids with dowsing devices?)

Among other things this week, our hacking/making/playing has included:

  • performing contentless scenes to understand objectives, obstacles, and tactics in a theatrical sense so we could transfer those concepts to staging scenes from Hamlet
  • fiddling with couplets to determine their stylistic function and effect
  • watching a brief interview with a Vietnam POW and working with the metaphor of a “tap code” as a necessary component of resiliency. Do the characters in the book club texts we’re reading have one? What about Hamlet?
  •  listening to Daniel Beaty’s slam poem “Knock, Knock” and drawing connections to Hamlet’s relationships with his father by writing our own poetry or analysis (then tweeting Beaty about it)
  • closely examining the “to be or not to be” soliloquy to determine Hamlet’s state of mind and writing about it as practice for the upcoming AP exam (a necessary constraint)
  • making more containers for our learning like this sociogram depicting Hamlet’s relationships and these production notes for an Act 4 scene to be staged on Monday
  • lots and lots of pair-sharing, small-group deliberation, and whole-class discussion
  • and last but not least…acting. With swords.

And  now we’ve come full circle back to hacking.

I’m pretty sure that’s what hacking the curriculum might look like, and I’m certain that the kids are engaging with the play in ways that are “interest-powered, peer-supported, and academically oriented,” things that seem to matter a whole lot to the folks at Connected Learning. Granted, we’re just scratching the surface on the networked and digital media piece, but if we can ever figure out a way around the district’s digital lockdown, that’s coming, too.


One thought on “H Files Installment 4: Hacking Hamlet

  1. It’s always good to pick Bud’s brain (and you might get a virtual sash, too? Lucky). I like how you are exploring the side of hacking that no longer gets the focus — which is the original intent of folks to look at a system, and then tinker to make it better or create something new out of something old.

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