Frozen tableau is a strategy in which students create a scene and freeze the action, then discuss what is happening and their reactions to it. Using physical poses, gestures, and facial expressions, students convey the characters, action, and significance of a historic moment.
Frozen Tableau in Laina Jones's Clasroom
Laina Jones uses the frozen tableau strategy to help her students contextualize The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963. Her goal is to help them understand what it was like to live during the civil rights movement and feel the emotions of that turbulent time.
Jones presents students with five emotionally charged images, including Rosa Parks being fingerprinted and Elizabeth Eckford being stopped by soldiers outside Little Rock High School. The students then write answers to questions, below, about how they feel when they look at each picture. Jones leads a class discussion afterward to clarify any misunderstandings about the photographs.
Then Jones asks groups of students to pose like the people in the photographs. Playing the role of a reporter, Jones asks each student/"character" what is happening and how they feel about it. Finally, as an extension, Jones asks the students to write poems about the emotions of the civil rights movement.
Steps for Creating the Frozen Tableau
Preparation With the Whole Class
Teachers should begin by selecting photographs from a particular historic moment. Photos that depict the emotional impact of an event on people will engage students best, especially if the pictures depict a range of emotions and attitudes. To help the students understand diverse perspectives, teachers might want to select photos that show people in conflict over an issue -- though not necessarily physical conflict. One photo Laina Jones chose for her civil rights unit, for instance, shows an African American and two white supporters at a lunch counter sit-in. The anger of the crowd behind them is palpable.
To begin, project one photograph for the class and ask the students to discuss the following questions:
After the class has discussed these questions, ask students to volunteer to "become" the people in the picture. As they arrange themselves in their frozen tableau, the teacher can guide their poses, gestures, facial expressions, and spatial relationships. The students observing the frozen tableau can compare their classmates' representation with the photograph on the overhead and suggest ways to improve the accuracy of the scene.
- If you were the photographer, what title would you give this shot? Why?
- What's going on in this picture?
- Who are the people in this picture? What emotions do you think they are feeling?
- Choose one person in the photograph. What do you think he or she is thinking at this moment?
- If you were showing this photograph to other people, what message would you want them to come away with about this event?
When the students pose in their frozen tableau, the teacher or a student can play the role of a television reporter. The reporter "unfreezes" characters in the scene by touching their shoulder. The reporter can ask the unfrozen character questions such as "Who are you? What is going on in this scene? What are you feeling? What brought you to this moment? What do you think will happen next? What do you want the viewing audience to know about this event?" Each character responds to the reporter's questions, then returns to position.
After modeling a tableau with the whole class, the teacher should divide the class into small groups and ask the students to create their own tableaux. Each small group should select a different photo and use the original discussion questions to deduce what the scene depicts. When each group has finished creating a tableau, they can show it -- and the photo that inspired it -- to their classmates. Viewers might make suggestions on how each small group can more accurately represent its photograph. The teacher can clarify any misunderstandings the students may have about the photograph's events.
At the end of the activity, the teacher may ask the students to write or speak about how the frozen tableaux affected their understanding of history. The teacher might ask, "What do you know or understand now about this time in history that you didn't know or understand before?" or "Choose one character depicted in any of the tableaux today, and, in that person's words and from that person's point of view, tell what you think about this historical event."
Tips and Variations for the Frozen Tableau
Benefits of the Frozen Tableau
- This strategy can also be used with scenes from multicultural fiction, such as The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963. Students can create frozen tableaux that represent important conflicts among characters or powerful scenes in the text. To help student groups move from copying poses to inferring what a fictional scene might look like, teachers can ask all the groups to use the same scene in a novel or story, such as the "Wool Pooh" scene or the scene where Kenny tries to find Joetta in church. As the groups share their tableaux, the students can see a range of interpretations. The whole class might then discuss which tableau seemed to capture the original text best.
- Alternatively, the frozen tableau strategy can be used to deepen the classroom discussion of themes or issues brought out in a text. In the case of The Watsons Go to Birmingham -- 1963, for example, the teacher might ask the students to identify scenes that illustrate incidents of racism. Small groups can then choose appropriate scenes and rehearse them in private. As each small group presents its scene, the class might guess which scene they chose and how it speaks to the particular theme or issue. Next, students or the teacher might interview some of the characters in the frozen tableau, asking them questions that range from "How are you feeling right now?" to "What would you say to teenagers today about this issue or theme?"
By analyzing photographs and other students' frozen tableaux, students become more observant of how history is both made and told through storytelling -- whether the storyteller is a writer, a speaker, or a photographer.
- Through this exercise, students see how interpretation is born of an interaction among a storyteller, historical events, and the reader. The strategy also enables students to "live" the past and discover history as stories of people taking risks, making decisions, and addressing problems. When students create frozen tableaux based on multicultural literature, they also visualize a written text, infer what individual characters might feel, imagine how to distill and capture the main idea of a scene, and empathize with people of diverse cultures and epochs.