Teaching Literature Supernaturally

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Teaching Literature Supernaturally (TLS) is a method of teaching literature and literacy using Supernatural as a model.

Cover of TLS with logo design by Hannah Smith of Walnut Grove, GA

From the website:

The general concept in this set of lessons is critical thinking. The hypothesis is that as you teach students to think critically by watching critically, then they will be able to translate that skill into reading critically, and eventually writing critically. TV episodes serve as a hook to get students engaged (using a medium the students are quite familiar with though maybe not critically) and then as a portal to other literary pieces based on theme, topic and general literary devices. Using graphic organizers and web communities, journal activities, research and Fan Fiction, all fitting themes of the program, every moment of class students are engaged in an active learning community (there is no passive sitting with your head on the desk in the dark!) and educational standards are met using 21st Century Literature

TLS was developed by educator Sandy Williams (with Jada C. Genter), who teaches at Walnut Grove High School in Loganville, Georgia. They chose Supernatural as a show that appealed to students of both genders, used all elements of film-making (lighting, camera angles, score, and background music in addition to the acting and the script) to tell a story, in addition to containing many character archetypes and classic literary plot structures.

The program has been enthusiastically embraced by students, and teachers from other schools have also started using the program. Creator Sandy says "my goal is to make Literature relevant to students and teach true 21st Century Literacy. Wouldn’t it be amazing to see TV accepted as a new form of literature, and Supernatural is thought of as the first example?”

See below for an in-depth interview with Sandy Williams about Teaching Literature Supernaturally.



When Sandy contacted me about TLS, I was really excited by the concept and interviewëd her via email to get more insight into this innovative teaching approach. Jules - Super Wiki Admin. 07 September 2011

SuperWiki: What inspired you to start this project?

Sandy: I used to write Fanfiction when I was in high school, but it was just something I wrote for myself. Discovering internet communities where people were sharing and editing and critiquing was such a revelation to me. When I started teaching in 1999 I was trying to figure out how I could get them to get excited about writing and the FanFiction thing clicked.

This was the same year The WB began the series “Roswell”. I had the idea of a video program where actors, writers, directors and producers from “Roswell” talked to kids about writing and it would be packaged with the pilot with lesson plans to be used in high school classrooms along. I contacted the producers of the series who indicated interest and a desire to help. It was a great idea, but there was the issue of funding, and the show was always on the bubble… While that program (we referred to it as “The Roswell Writing Project”) didn’t come to fruition, I was struck by three things, 1) how much students responded to the idea, 2) how willing and enthusiastic the television community was to be involved in education and 3) most of all how instead of “killing creativity” (like I so often heard people say), TV was inspiring it in young people.

SuperWiki: What was your logic behind using TV to teach literature?

Sandy: There seems to be this idea that people who watch television or more generally, visual media (movies, TV or web series) are less intelligent than people who read. Also, a lot of people seem to think if you read you don’t watch or vice versa. It seems to me, however, that TV (and other visual media) are actually the next evolution of literature and that we use the same skills in interpreting the messages of film as we do in reading comprehension in literature. Neilson says that our youth “consume” about 50 hours of media a week, this includes texting, internet, video games, movies and about 30 hours of TV. Using TV in the classroom, is a way to meet the kids where they are, show them that they are using the skills we are teaching them already and then using that to turn them onto traditional forms of literature while also teaching them to appreciate and enjoy this new form as well.

John Golden (a teacher in California) wrote a fabulous book called Reading In The Dark (you can find it on Amazon) about using movies to teach reading and literature comprehension skills. TV provides an opportunity to create a thematic unit that can run through a whole curriculum, hooking students, creating interest in literature and teaching literature comprehension skills while also encouraging (and providing interesting and relevant topics for) writing.

SuperWiki: Why did you choose “Supernatural” specifically as the first TV show to be used in this kind of approach?

Sandy: There were several reasons that I chose “Supernatural” to pilot this kind of program, and to be honest the show was the final inspiration to put Teaching Literature Supernaturally (TLS) together.

First, it was a well crafted, well organized and enjoyable show. There is a lot on television today, but there isn’t a lot of GOOD TV. Here was a show that truly used the art of filmmaking to tell a story (think about the significance of lighting, camera angles, score, and background music in addition to the acting and the script to everything that Supernatural is).

Second, from a literary standpoint, this series was chock full! It had very archetypical characters that young people could identify with and plot lines that draw from classic literary plot structures. Most importantly this was a series that kids get, kids like and had the ability to draw the kids in from the very first. Both genders like this series, no question and that is a unique quality for a classroom.

The clincher for me was a conversation I overheard between two of my students one day. They were talking about the show and Jared Padalecki. One of them was talking about how his mother was an English teacher and how cool was that and suddenly I wanted to explain this idea I had to use TV to teach literature to Mrs. Padalecki. She became representative of the teachers I wanted to reach (and their students through them). “How do I explain my idea to Mrs. Padalecki?” You could say it became my “Essential Question.” (That’s a term we use in education to help focus kids on the point of a lesson.)

There are shows both current and in the past that could work for this kind of program and there may be (hopefully) many shows in the future, but this series, specifically the first two Seasons (which is what TLS uses) are, in my opinion, the best thing out there for this kind of approach in Language Arts education.

SuperWiki: Personally, what is it that you love about Supernatural?

Sandy: I had never really watched Supernatural until the summer of 2010. I was house sitting for a couple weeks and I would watch episodes from 10 to noon every weekday on TNT. The first one I saw was Mystery Spot from Season 3. When school started that August I mentioned it to the new drama teacher at our school (Jada Genter, now a collaborator on my book and one of my best friends) and she sent me home with the DVD of Season 1. I was hooked. By the time I was through Season 3, I was really seeing the possibilities in the series and then I overheard the conversation between my two students… This is to say I liked the series before but once I saw this possibility I loved it.

As to the series itself... As a Navy Brat who moved all over this country (often by car), was raised by a single dad as a teenager, loved a good story, had a mother who was born and raised in Lawrence, KS (one of my favorite places in the whole world) and has a younger brother I would die for, provided I don’t kill him first… there were just so many things in this series that I identified with.

SuperWiki: What has been the reaction of other teachers to the project?

Sandy: I get two reactions, “This sounds interesting. Let me know how it works out.” And “Oh my goodness! This makes so much sense! I’ve wanted to try something like this but I wasn’t sure where to start and I figured no one else would get it and… where do I sign up?” That second reaction has floored me! So many English teachers feel like we are in a rut and our kids don’t see the subject as relevant and this approach has been really energizing to a lot of us. We feel like we are relevant again! More importantly we can surprise our kids and hold their attention.

SuperWiki: What was the reaction of school administrations?

Sandy: Being a principal or assistant principal is a rough gig. They have a lot to juggle. While people/parents say that they expect and want innovation in education, communities can often be resistant to change (fear of the unknown, fear of change, all those things) and administrators are stuck in that situation of trying to balance all of that… Therefore I expected to have my ideas dismissed as too radical or at least take some real time to convince them to let me try… Yet I have gotten so much support. Further, the other teachers who I am talking to who are trying said the same things, “I expected my principal to shoot it down, but he said, anything that would get the kids learning and reading he was willing for us to try!” Between the teachers and the administrators I really believe that education is HUNGRY for this kind of new idea.

SuperWiki: What has been the reaction from the students?

Sandy: They love it! More importantly it motivates them to work like nothing else I’ve seen. They aren’t just sitting there watching blankly (or worse putting their heads down on their desks) they are working on vocabulary, questions, nuisances, literary devices. While it is part of the curriculum, it is also the reward to them. They do their homework, including reading, because if they don’t we can’t watch the next episode. I actually had kids meeting each other at the door, “Did you do it! Let me see! That’s not enough. She won’t take that. Quick, write more!” and then when a student was talking during an episode another student turned around and said, “Would you shut up! I worked hard to get to see this episode!”

SuperWiki: Have things emerged in doing this project that you didn't expect? What worked, or what didn't, that may have surprised you?

Sandy: I didn’t expect the kids to take this so seriously. Another teacher who is working the program with advanced students had kids who wanted to write their own episodes after only two weeks. The TLS program doesn’t incorporate that idea until midway through… Obviously the teacher happily adjusted. Additionally while I purposefully wrote and intended this to notbe a scripted program I am constantly surprised by how differently different teachers can still be teaching the same thing but differently and getting the same results so far… Granted this is the first year. We don’t have the concrete results yet to show that this works. I will have those at the end of the year (2011) - others will have it at the end of the Spring.

SuperWiki: What reaction did you get when you presented at the SREB High Schools That Work Summer Staff Development Conference in Nashville?

Sandy: That was like a fairy tale, really. Jada Genter and I came around the corner at the convention center and all these people were sitting on the floor outside the conference and Jada looks at me and says, “You realize all these people are here to see you?”

I had been hoping for maybe thirty open-minded teachers who would be willing to consider this idea… Instead I got 130 teachers who were hungry for a new way to reach their kids. I had brought five copies of TLS (which is still a 350 page work in progress) that I self-published with no intention to sell anything yet. We sold three copies before we even started, one was stolen (!) and I had to burn electronic copies to CD’s for people… Teachers didn’t just want to talk, they wanted to listen and then try it themselves.

My favorite reaction was a teacher who ran in while I was setting up and playing the Supernatural soundtrack, ran up to Jada and said, excitedly, “Is this really what I think this is about!?!” Teachers are also familiar with Supernatural (it is smart TV after all) and liked the idea of not only using TV, but this TV.

SuperWiki: How can other teachers get to use Teaching Literature Supernaturally?

Sandy: I hadn’t exactly expected so many to want to try this so quickly, but I am adapting. My brother (the one I alternate between wanting to die for and wanting to kill) has created an amazing website for me, tls4students.org that has a lot of information about the program, including some examples and there is a page there for contacting me. As of right now, I am able to make available TLS in hard copy for $35 to teachers, which includes shipping and handling. The cost is pretty much just covering my printing costs. The only thing I ask is that teachers let me know the specifics of your class, school and then your experiences. While originally I did make the electronic copy available I have had to cut back on that to special circumstances. There have been a few people who have contacted me for the book for non-educational purposes, which I appreciate (I’m a fan of the series too) but I am hesitant about that situation right now.

It is my hope that once I have some concrete figures I will be able to find a professional publisher and the book will be available through them. People can also follow my experience (and the experiences of other TLS teachers) on my blog tlsyear1.blogspot.com. I encourage Teachers using TLS to post comments there.

SuperWiki: What is your overall hope and goal for the TLS program?

Sandy: As a teacher, my goal is to make Literature relevant to students and teach true 21st Century Literacy.

The ninth graders I am teaching right now were too young in 2005 to watch the series when it first came out and therefore are not watching it currently now… except, that because I have introduced them, when Season 7 premieres this month, my students WILL be watching. That’s 50 new viewers in my community, not to mention the friends that they have told and bring with them. This is an amazing opportunity & possibility for any series, but I think Supernatural will really benefit. Not only will the kids be watching, they will be watching intelligently too.

Because the series is still in production there is a real opportunity to create support materials that would really put a veneer finish on the whole thing (a friend of mine calls it “sparkles” but that seems unfair to Sam and Dean…) so my hope is also that with the good publicity Warner Brothers might step in and help us put together those support materials.

Wouldn’t it be amazing to see TV accepted as a new form of literature, and Supernatural is thought of as the first example?