Skip to main content Skip to main content

Making Meaning in Literature: A Video Library, Grades 6-8

Dramatic Tableaux

This program features the seventh–grade Berlin, Maryland, classroom of Dr. Jan Currence. Currence and her students delve into Christopher Paul Curtis's The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963. Currence first models and then engages students in tableau activities, in which students draw on their experiences to bring the text to life for others.

About This Video Clip

“Helping them to look at characters as people and try to personalize and make connections is something that I have found really is helpful and I know is an important thing to do.”
Dr. Jan Currence
Stephen Decatur Middle School
Berlin, Maryland

Integrated language arts provides an interdisciplinary learning experience for Dr. Currence’s inclusion students. Units are thematically planned, weaving social studies, science, and even math into the language arts experience. The lesson featured in this video clip is part of a historical fiction unit, where students read a novel as a class and select one of their own from the same genre.

Dr. Currence creates a student-centered environment for her students, where meeting a range of students’ needs is a priority. Because of this, it is nearly impossible to determine which students in her class have special needs and which ones do not. Dr. Currence wants her students to choose to learn, and this philosophy drives her work with them. She hopes to engage her students in literature through a variety of activities, including read-alouds, dramatics, writing, picture books, journaling, and creative culminating projects.

In this lesson, students participate in an activity Dr. Currence refers to as Tableaux With a Twist. A tableau is a dramatic activity where a group of students are asked to physically construct a significant scene from literature through body placement, facial expressions, and the use of a few props. This “freeze frame” invites students in the audience to identify the scene, its importance, and the significance of the characters, their actions, and reactions. Dr. Currence’s Tableaux With a Twist invites students in the audience to tap a character in the scene, hearing what they have to say. The tapped characters in the scene explain what they are doing and why they are doing it. This activity focuses on characters’ actions and motives, allowing students to walk in the characters’ shoes. This is particularly important for the students’ current unit of study, historical fiction, in which they are expected to see how realistic characters change when some element of history influences their lives. Tableaux helps kids become part of the book, create personal responses to the literature, and connect with the characters, conflicts, and plot in a meaningful way.

For resources that can help you use this clip for teacher professional development, preservice education, administrative and English/language arts content meetings, parent conferences, and back-to-school events, visit our Support Materials page. There, you will find PDF files of our library guide, classroom lesson plan, student activity sheets, and other Teacher Tools.

Featured Texts

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis
Ten-year-old Kenny and his 13-year-old brother Byron have typical sibling rivalry. When Byron tries his parents’ patience for the last time, they decide to ship him off to his grandmother in Birmingham, Alabama. These Flint, Michigan boys encounter Birmingham at its most turbulent time, the burning of the Sixteenth Avenue Baptist Church with four young girls inside.

Dr. Currence selected a young adult novel for an historical fiction unit of study. This particular novel features sibling rivalry at its best, which engages students in making personal connections to the text.

Classroom Snapshot

School: Stephen Decatur Middle School
Location: Berlin, Maryland
No. of Students in School: 650
Teacher: Dr. Janis Currence
No. of Years Teaching: 28 Years
Grade: 7th
Subject: Integrated language arts
No. of Students in the Classroom: 26

Stephen Decatur Middle School is located in Berlin, five miles from Ocean City on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. It is the largest of Worcester County’s three middle schools, with approximately 650 students in grades seven and eight, of whom 30 percent are minorities. Decatur draws its students from three areas — a retirement community, a tourist destination, and a rural town. Most live outside walking distance. Families represent a wide range of incomes. Many parents, especially those in Asian American households, are employed at nearby Perdue Farms, while many others work in Ocean City’s thriving tourism industry. Students take the Maryland Functional Reading and Writing tests, which they must eventually pass in order to graduate from high school.

Although its students come from neighborhoods pocketed by both ethnicity and social class, Decatur has a close-knit school community. The building’s four wings house separate schools-within-a-school, each with its own teaching team and student population. This fosters a sense of security and identity by allowing children to interact within a smaller group of peers and adults. Teaching teams, two at each grade level, encourage interdisciplinary learning and create a standard set of behavioral and academic expectations across the day. Jan Currence’s seventh-graders know, for instance, that they must use correct punctuation not only in integrated language arts (ILA), but also in science and social studies. Dr. Currence’s team includes two math teachers, two ILA teachers, one social studies teacher, and a science teacher, as well as an educational assistant and an in-class special education resource person. The team has regular meetings to facilitate cross-curricular planning. Class periods are double-blocked to allow greater freedom of instruction.

Within a seventh-grade class of 26 to 28 students, Dr. Currence may have reading levels spanning from second grade through college. According to county mandates, she must focus on particular genres — realistic fiction, historical fiction, mythology, poetry, and drama — but within this structure, she may select the individual texts her students will examine. To accommodate the range of interests and skill levels in her classroom, and to give children a voice in their own education, she allows students great flexibility in what they choose to read. She also reads books aloud to engage children in challenging discussions of texts that are above their reading level but not their comprehension. Individualized learning goals and performance-based assessments are the norm, and Dr. Currence regularly enlists students’ help in developing rubrics and grading criteria.

Classroom Lesson Plan: Tableaux With a Twist

Teacher: Dr. Janis Currence, Stephen Decatur Middle School, Berlin, Maryland

Dr. Currence’s lesson plan is also available as a PDF file. See Materials Needed, below, for links to student activity sheets related to the lesson.

Grade Level: Seventh

Topic: Using drama to engage students in meaningful responses to literature, with a focus on character development

Materials Needed:

  • Student copies of novel, The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963
  • Student props
  • Tambourine or other sound-making device for teacher
  • Student Activity Sheet
    • Dramatic Tableaux
  • Teacher Tools
    • Dramatic Tableaux Activities

Background Information:
Students in Dr. Currence’s class are studying a historical fiction unit, examining the nuances of the genre and how actual events in history affects the lives of fictitious characters in significant ways. Here, students read a significant portion of the book The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, so that they could begin to examine the characters’ actions and motives. In addition to reading this book, students were required to select another historical fiction novel to read on their own.

Students interacted with the novel through a variety of classroom experiences designed to help them access the text and interact with it in meaningful ways to increase their understanding of the text. These activities included:

  • Read-alouds: The teachers and students shared the experience of reading aloud the novel.
  • KWL Graphic organizers: KWL organizers are charts that ask students to list what they know, what they want to know, and what they have learned as the read a text.
  • Open-Minded Graphic Organizers: Students collect or draw pictures or symbols to identify what a protagonist or antagonist in a text may have thought. Dr. Currence provided students with a silhouette figure into which they drew or pasted symbols, pictures, and words that represented the interior thoughts of characters in the novel.
  • Double-Column Book Logs: In this form of journaling, students note their personal reaction to a particular part of the text in one column, and cite the page of the book that provoked their reaction in the other.

In order to assist students with understanding the fictitious characters, their motivations, and how historical events influence their actions and reactions, this lesson provides an opportunity to participate in a dramatic activity called Tableaux With a Twist.

Lesson Objectives:
Students will:

  • explore and demonstrate the ways authors reveal characters in a text through dramatic tableaux.
  • write for personal expression, focusing on insight gained from the tableaux experience.

Expected Products From Lesson:

  • Dramatic scene, based on a chapter of the novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963
  • Student reflection on the activity and their analysis of their own learning as they participated in dramatic tableaux, examining how it enhanced their own learning and understanding of the literature

Instructional Strategies Implemented:

  • Collaborative learning
  • Dramatic tableaux
  • Independent writing/reflection

Collaborative Structure of Class:
Students are placed in groups of four to five each.

Lesson Procedures/Activities:
Day 1: 10 Minutes: Model Tableaux With a Twist

  • Introduce the activity Tableaux With a Twist. Tell students that they will be forming dramatic groups where they will create frozen scenes from significant events in the novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 for the next day’s activity.
  • Select four students and identify a scene from the book for modeling Tableaux with a Twist.
  • Ask students to form a frozen scene representing the event from the novel. Encourage the students to prepare the scene in a corner of the classroom where classmates cannot see or hear what they are doing. Allow students three to five minutes to formulate their scene. Tell them that the audience will be allowed to tap characters in the scene and hear what they have to say about their situation and actions.
  • Once the model group is ready to present, ask students to put their heads down. Explain to them that as long as they hear the shaking of the tambourine, they are to keep their eyes closed. Meanwhile, the group is forming its scene.
  • Once the group is in position, stop the tambourine with a single, loud hit, and invite students in the audience to take a look at the frozen scene.
  • Teacher will lead audience participation by calling on students from the class to identify the scene and its importance in the novel. Teacher can also invite students to tap a character to hear what they have to say about what they are doing in the scene and their thoughts about it.

Day 1: 20 Minutes for Preparation

  • Form groups of four to five students each. Distribute the student activity sheet Dramatic Tableaux to each group. Ask students to select a group leader for the purpose of organizing the scene and for communicating readiness to the teacher. Groups should also select a recorder to fill in the student activity sheet as they progress through the activity.
  • Assign a specific chapter in the novel to each group. Allow students to choose one significant scene from their chapter.
  • Ask students to meet in their groups for the purpose of selecting their scene, identifying the significance of the scene, the roles the characters play, and how to form the tableau with the group members and props (allow up to two props per group).
  • Allow students to meet in their groups for 15 minutes. Students will present their scenes the following day in class, after they have had time to gather their props.

Day 2: Performance of Scenes

  • Allow groups to meet for five minutes to work out last-minute details of their scene.
  • Present scenes and allow time for audience reaction and tapping of characters.
  • Once students get comfortable with the activity, teacher may select a student class leader to shake the tambourine and call upon classmates.
  • Once groups have concluded their presentations, direct students to complete student activity sheets.
  • Homework and Follow-Up Activity:
    Ask students to write a reaction to the tableaux activity. Ask students to consider: What did you like about participating in the activity? What went well for you? In what ways did the activity help you to understand the characters, their actions, motives, and relationship to the plot in The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963?
  • See Dramatic Tableaux Activities for suggestions for directing this reaction, and other activities that can be used to assess students’ understanding of the characters and scenes they presented.

Follow-Up Activities or Culminating Activities:

  • As a culminating activity, ask students to complete a project that illustrates an important historical event that impacts either the protagonist or antagonist in a historical fiction book. Encourage students to select creative media for constructing their projects, such as original chapters or one-act plays, drawings, dioramas, games, or posters. Provide several weeks for students to work on the project outside of class. Students may also present the project orally, offering the class an opportunity to ask questions about the book and give the student feedback. Consider creating a project scoring system in collaboration with your students, either individually (as in student contracts for each project) or as a whole class.
  • Text-to-Text Connections
    Use the following Web sites to explore articles related to the church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama, 1963:In the Memory of Four Little Girls Dead After Church Bombing, Washington Post copies of these articles for students if they will not have access to computers during this activity.List these symbols on the board, or make a bookmark for each student with them on it:
    L Learning something new
    S Something that surprised you
    T-T Information in the text that connects to information you have read in another text
    R Reminds you of something else you read
    * Interesting
    C Confusing information
    I Important information
    W Wondering about why something occurred

Students’ successful participation in the tableaux activity is assessed through teacher observation. Students are also required to submit a reflection on the activity.

Some suggested criteria for evaluating their presentations include:

  • knowledge and attention to audience
  • project creativity
  • student’s self-evaluation of project
  • brief oral presentation, including:
    • summary of the main events in the story and the historical context in which the story is set
    • brief discussion of the ways the main character(s) was (were) affected by the historical events, and the student’s opinion about the historical accuracy of the book, offering non-fiction evidence to support opinion

Professional Reflection

Take a step back from your classroom and examine the video clip in relation to your own instructional practices. Use the questions below to spark discussion about instructional practices in department meetings, team meetings, or as a writing prompt in your own professional journal.


  • How could the teacher from this video clip encourage students to analyze their dramatic tableaux?
  • How could the teacher guide students to deeply examine the text based on what they gained from the dramatic experience?
  • What kinds of questions should the teacher ask the students?
  • How can writing support a deeper examination of the students’ experience with the text?

Teacher Tools

Whether you are a classroom or preservice teacher, teacher educator, content leader, department chair, or administrator, the materials below can assist you in implementing the practices presented in the video clip.

Modeling for Students
Understanding character is one key to unlocking a more complete vision of any text. Teachers can help students do this by extensive modeling, clearly demonstrating how they interact with a story to understand characters as they read aloud to their students. You should not afraid to make conjectures about motivation or relationships that might prove more complicated or even contradicted at a later point in the reading experience. Students need to see that all readers, even the most expert, make and then refine or perhaps discard impressions as they form envisionments of the text.

Resources focused on Building a Literary Community
Use these resources about improving literary understanding and improving thinking skills produced by the National Research Center on English Learning and Achievement. Information about scaffolding instruction, strategies for improving literary understanding, and including struggling readers is provided at CELA’s Web site. All of these resources can help you as you begin to assess your own classroom success in helping students create envisionments.

Improving Literary Understanding Through Classroom Conversation
Effective Literature Instruction Develops Thinking Skills

Text Pairings
As you begin to plan literature experiences for your students, consider offering text pairings, so that students have a rich palette of text background and reading experiences to draw upon in their literary conversations. Some texts that may complement the ones used in this classroom lesson plan include:

  • To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
  • A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
  • Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor
  • Let the Circle Be Unbroken by Mildred Taylor

Additional Resources

Online resources related to the texts used in Dr. Currence’s classroom:

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963

Additional resources related to the tenets of this lesson: