Literacy Hacks

This is a multi-stage assignment I use in my Critical Literacies and Communities undergraduate course. Most students in the course are studying to be high school or middle school English language arts teachers. I weave the assignment steps through a few weeks of class, some steps taking place while we are together and some while students are on their own. This assignment helps students to understand literary works as designed systems with vulnerabilities to leverage, exploit, and redesign — or hack.

Anchor Concepts

We took up the notion of hacking as discussed in Kira J. Baker-Doyle’s book Transformative Teachers: Teacher Leadership and Learning in a Connected World.

  • “Hacking is about creation; not obstruction….All hackers must (1) understand how complex systems or structures work and what powers them, and (2) learn to play with, tinker, and innovate these systems in order to transform them from the bottom up into something useful and carefully crafted. (109)
  • “To hack a curriculum, one must understand curriculum to be a part of the larger discourse on education, and the hack is a creative, curious de/reconstruction of the narratives that drive this discourse via a rethinking of the curriculum.” (p. 118)
  • “A hacker has a complex understanding of an entire system and can identify the assumptions, failures, and vulnerabilities that exist within the authoritative power structures that control the system” (p. 108).

Sharpening Your Hacksaw

I start with children’s stories to sharpen hacking skills before applying them to novels more commonly taught in schools. I typically use The Paper Bag Princess and Go the F*ck to Sleep. I pose series of questions to help students begin to see texts as designed systems with vulnerabilities. Below are some questions I use for leading students through these texts.

What larger discourse on childhood, parents, and family do these stories typically play into? 

What ideologies are typically in these stories, or what ideologies typically get reinforced through these stories? 

What is typically ignored and thus rendered invisible, erased in these stories?

How does Paper Bag Princess text interrupt, destabilize, resist the fairytale genre?

What larger discourse on childhood, parents, and family do these stories typically play into? 

What ideologies are typically in these stories, or what ideologies typically get reinforced through these stories? 

What is typically ignored and thus rendered invisible, erased in these stories?

How does Go the F*ck to Sleep text interrupt, destabilize, resist the bedtime story genre?

Hacking as it exists in these two books is implied. The authors and illustrators subvert many of the expected ideas and forms of the genre-system. What isn’t made explicit in these books, however, is how hacking is creation. This is where Battle Bunny comes in. I uses this text as another example of literary hacking but one whose technical-creative means are delightfully evident on the page.

Note some of the different technical ways the “author” executes the hack: re-illustrating pages and writing new text.

The hack also happens by rewriting sentences, inserting words, or even changing the meaning of a word through a one letter addition or deletion.

We make note of the different text and image-level tactics one can use accomplish the hack, while keeping in mind the systemic focus of the hack on the power system of the text. In other words, though a hack may leverage humor, it isn’t about doing something funny to a text.

First Hack: Children’s Books

The first hack attempt happens by giving each student a used children’s book and turning them loose. I don’t give many directives for this attempt because I don’t want to restrict creativity. And the attention to discourse and ideology in the Sharping Your Hacksaw sequence makes clear to students what they should be doing. Here are some examples of what students have come up with:

We do a short book swap in class so students can see the range of ways they went about the hacks.

Second Hack: Commonly Taught Novel

I then have student self-organize into groups around commonly taught novels they experienced in secondary schools. The usually suspects are: Of Mice and Men, The Great Gatsby, Lord of the Flies, and others. Grouped around a novel, students lead themselves through the following protocol to start generating ideas for their hack.

Instructions: Use the grid below to lead your group through an initial discussion. Brainstorm on a space of a whiteboard or paper and drop a photo of it in the section below. Or make some summative notes below.
Individual points of entry to text: what motivates you to choose this text? (Love it; hate it; something else? How you encountered it before?)

In your experiences, what themes are usually taught through this text? Which characters and scenes get the most attention? What interpretive frames, discourses, or ideologies are usually promoted through the text?

Initial assumptions, failures, or vulnerabilities of the text: are there parts or aspects of the text that are typically ignored in favor of your answers to the above questions? Certain (minor) characters? Under-examined scenes or themes?

What are some of your initial ideas about how you might want to hack this work? For what strategic outcome? For what strategic purpose?

In light of your responses to the above sections, what are some of the next steps your group needs to take?  

Getting Insights: The Hack-a-Thon

I then have each group plan and hold a 30-minute hack-a-thon through their professional Twitter accounts1. We model these hack-a-thons around how professional learning chats happen, particularly ones that happen through the Q1/A1 format. The purpose is for them to generate ideas from teaching communities outside of the classroom that might be relevant to their hack. We get acquainted with this format first by lurking on a professional learning chat and then practicing by having a class discussion on Twitter while sitting in class together. Students then plan, promote, and hold their hack-a-thon.

Here are some past promotional materials:

Debrief and Deliverables

I then lead students through a debrief of their hack-a-thon. We look at engagement data, pool insights from the chat, and map from whom the insights came from. Next comes introducing the deliverables connected to hacker principles.

  1. I am no longer confident about Twitter (now known as X) as a healthy space of professional learning. As a result, I would not require students to have an account for professional reasons but would redevelop the hack-a-thon portion of assignment away from that space. And special thanks to Erik Skogsberg, who thought with me through aspects of this assignment.