Stranger Things has become one of those rare phenomena on television, a universal talking point. The much-anticipated recent series (series 4) has become the most successful streamed series of all time. It quickly broke all previous records and re-established Netflix as the most successful film and television streaming service. In addition to all the media chatter, you might be aware that the song “Running Up That Hill” by Kate Bush was given a new lease of life as a result of being used in the show, storming up the charts to number one in many countries across the world. In this article we look at what Stranger Things is all about, examine why it has become such a phenomenon and suggest ways it can be used to generate activities and discussion in the English or TEFL classroom.
Stranger Things is a gift for TEFL/ESOL teachers and other teachers of English in the same way that J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books were. Fans are scrambling to download the latest episodes even if that means the original English language version. They may be inclined to watch them several times to make sure they understand every piece of dialogue and the nuances of each scene. We should make the most of the enthusiasm for English that the series generates.
For those who haven’t seen it, Stranger Things is a light science fiction/horror series set in 1980s America. It plays heavily on nostalgia for that era using music and iconography of the period and undisguised but affectionate tributes to teenage films of the eighties. There are frequent references to the earlier films of Steven Spielberg. It tells the tale of a group of teenagers and adults who are drawn into an alternative dimension known as ‘the upside down’ which owes much to the game of Dungeons and Dragons which was at the height of popularity during the eighties. The main characters, who grow and develop through the series, are a gang of geeky teenage game players and a girl called ‘Eleven’ who has supernatural powers. In each of the first three series the menace of ‘the upside down,’ and the monsters that dwell there, grows ever more threatening.
Is the above a good synopsis so far? Could your students do better?
Those who follow Stranger Things will be aware that real life in the shape of Covid 19 interrupted the production of the series. This resulted in a long gap between the end of season three and the start of season four. The main young stars of the show clearly aged during the gap in the production schedule, and when filming resumed it did so under strict covid protocols. The big question in many people’s minds was; ‘could The Duffer Brothers, who produce the show, make anything to live up to the reputation of the first three series, or would season four turn out to be as disappointing to fans as the final season of Game Of Thrones proved to be?’
The results are in. Fans and critics loved series four. Most rate it as the best season of the series so far and some critics have called it the best streamed television series of all time. What do the students in your class think? What would they change? What was their favourite episode? I think I can predict how the majority of your students will answer that last question, but we will come to that later… In any case, those questions might provoke some interesting and enthusiastic essays, compositions or class debates.
As teachers, we can sometimes be a bit snobby about what constitutes good literature. Yet most of us will have books and authors we avoid now as a result of being forced to read them in a boring way at school. For me, it is anything by Charles Dickens! Yet hopefully we also have fonder memories of a book or film that piqued our interests and provided something we enjoyed writing or speaking about in school. Stranger Things 4, might be the thing that does it for the pupils we are teaching now. Of course, it isn’t Shakespeare. However, it does address a lot of contemporary issues and themes in an entertaining and engaging way. It could also be argued that the whole of season four is a master class in how to produce a compelling television series. Perhaps your older students could debate that or try producing their own English language videos.
Clearly, a lot of money was spent on the fourth season of this series. In many respects, the production values for this television show are equal to that of a mainstream Hollywood film. Most of the episodes are as long as the movies they are emulating, and the look and feel of each instalment is cinematic. With older students, this might give rise to some discussion about the future of cinema as an art form in itself. If you can see quality productions at home on a large, modern, wide-screen, high-definition TV screen, is there really any point in going to the cinema? Does discussion on social media replace the shared experience of watching a film in a dedicated movie theatre?
While nominally set in the 1980s, the characters in stranger things reflect modern sensibilities. The main characters are predominantly white but there are significant characters from other ethnic backgrounds. One of the principal female characters is gay and her coming out scene in the previous season was both humorous and enchanting in the way it normalised what can still be a difficult issue for young people.
Who are your student’s favourite characters in the show? What do they like about them? How would they describe them physically and in terms of personality? Which characters don’t they like; who do they find annoying? Why? There is a lot of descriptive language work here and you could go on to get your class to create new characters for Stranger Things or their own made-up shows. Even less able students could create their own ‘Top Trumps’ cards identifying character’s key strengths and weaknesses.
Season four is undoubtedly darker than the previous seasons. Not only are there some genuinely scary moments but the series tackles themes that modern teenagers have to cope with in their real worlds. There are minor references to drugs and addiction and an obvious commentary on religion and fascism. But more importantly, there are references to grief, depression, alienation and bullying. While these things are done within a fantasy setting, there is no disguising the issues being referred to. This is particularly true of episode four; the one most people are still talking and thinking about.
“Dear Billy” is almost a stand-alone episode which concentrates on one of the hitherto supporting members of the cast, Max, played by Sadie Sink. At the end of season three, Max’s older brother who was previously portrayed as an archetypal bad guy redeems himself at the last moment saving the lives of the main characters but losing his own life in the process. Episode Four charts how Max deals with her grief, falling into isolation and depression. It treads a fine line between allegory and a realistic portrayal of teenage despair with allusions to suicide. The final ten minutes during which the aforementioned Kate Bush song is pivotal is both terrifying and heart-warming and will probably be held up as a masterpiece of modern television for some time to come. Sadie Sink will no doubt receive award nominations for her contribution to this episode. ‘Dear Billy’ covers some potentially triggering issues. It could lead to some valuable English discussion but needs to be handled very sensitively.
The Kate Bush song ‘Running Up That Hill’ plays a key role in ‘Dear Billy’ and goes on to become an aural motif for the series. The lyrics of the song are quite ambivalent, perhaps you could ask your students to discuss what the song is really about and why it was appropriate in this context. Maybe they could suggest alternative songs and justify their choices. It is also easy to get hold of the lyrics of Running Up That Hill and use it as a gap-fill exercise for some listening and comprehension work.
Music is used throughout Stranger Things to create atmosphere and help build tension in important scenes. It is also used to set and underline the time period the show is set in. If the show was set in modern times, what songs would your students include in the soundtrack and why?
An activity I often use based around music is to play extracts from five or six diverse pieces of music and tell the students they all come from the soundtrack of a film. Their task is to work out what the film could be about and suggest who are the main characters in it. They should say what is happening when each piece of music is played in the film. This establishes the basics of a plot line. Depending on the level and enthusiasm of the students I might go on to ask them to create a visual storyboard or comic book-style story. This can be extended into a longer piece of creative writing or some drama work, acting out significant scenes.
When things are as successful as Stranger Things, it is hard to imagine that they might not have been. But, I wonder how studio bosses and financial executives reacted when the Duffer Brothers approached film companies with an idea for a show about geeky teenagers set in the 1980s? How would your students pitch and present such a proposal? There is scope for a lot of presentation and drama work here. Possibly as a follow-up to the music-generated drama ideas discussed previously, groups of students could compete to pitch their own film or television ideas to you or other members of the class.
Dungeons and Dragons was one of the first fantasy role-play games to become popular during the 1970s and 1980s. It is still popular, thanks in part to its central role in Stranger Things. Some of your students might play a version of it or a similar role-playing game already; but why not create your own class-based game? This would bring together a lot of the activities already mentioned. As a class, you create a fantasy setting and agree on some rules. Then each student or group creates a character to interact in the game. You can make it as simple or complicated as the personalities within your class will allow, but one rule must be sacrosanct: all gameplay takes place in English!
Perhaps Stranger Things still isn’t your cup of tea. What other things do your students watch in English that you could use as a spur for work in your English classes? Using something the students are already interested in always gives us a head start as teachers. It would be a shame not to make the most of such opportunities. We would be interested to hear of more creative teaching ideas inspired by Stranger Things or other television series. Please use the comments below to inspire other TEFL and English teachers.