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Teaching Multicultural Literature: A Workshop for the Middle Grades

Historical and Cultural Context: Christopher Paul Curtis Teaching Strategies

Frozen Tableau


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 Classroom

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:

  • 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?

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.

Reporter’s Questions
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.

Small-Group Tableau
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

  • 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?”

Benefits of the Frozen Tableau

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.


Radio Play

Radio Play


Radio play is a strategy in which students use their voices and sound effects to enact a script. This script may be original, such as those of the students in Laina Jones’s class, or it may be published.

Radio Play in Laina Jones’s Classroom

Laina Jones’s students write and perform a radio play about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Jones has several goals for her students: to immerse themselves in the historical context of a novel; to understand how leaders of the civil rights movement organized large-scale nonviolent demonstrations and support; to understand how ordinary people became active in the movement; and to recognize the power of those people to effect change.

Jones first provides her students with a variety of nonfiction literature, including the video Eyes on the Prize and key organizers’ accounts of the boycott. As a class, the students choose scenes to depict: Claudette Colvin’s initial attempt to integrate a city bus, the recruitment of Rosa Parks, and a rousing speech by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. In small groups, the students draft the scenes.

Following teacher and peer reviews, the groups revise their scripts and rehearse. Then Jones leads a discussion about what various characters might have felt, and how the students can convey that orally. Finally, the students record their radio play. As an extension, the students write letters to persuade local radio stations to air the play; Jones sends the letters out along with copies of the tape.

Introduction to the Radio Play
When students write material for a historic radio play, they can research a significant event and its participants, then decide how to convey this sonically. They must consider the purpose (or message) of their radio play, the intended audience, the length of the broadcast, and its structure. The teacher may also want to lead a discussion about how film actors convey emotions and how the students might adapt those strategies. The students may also generate ideas for creating sound effects. They can track all their ideas in a chart or graphic organizer.

Creating the Radio Play
The students must research a subject before writing about it. Laina Jones’s students, for instance, write their radio plays only after they have read several nonfiction pieces about the era and watched the documentary film Eyes on the Prize.

The teacher might next ask the class to brainstorm a writing task list. This may include choosing the characters, describing the setting, deciding which aspects of the scene should be described by a narrator and which should be conveyed through dialogue, and choosing quotations to incorporate. The teacher also may model the process by choosing a well-known historical event and, together with the class, writing the first page of its script.

To ensure that all her students contribute, Laina Jones assigns each small group one scene to write. The groups meet to outline and write rough drafts. The teacher might circulate throughout the room to listen, ensure that the groups read their scenes at least twice, offer feedback about the writing, and ask the students, as Laina Jones does, “How would this character feel? How could we hear that in your voice?” Group members should edit their writing and modify their vocal performance based on this feedback. When the drafts have been revised, the teacher should record each group performing its scene aloud, then play the scenes for the students and discuss what worked and what could be improved. As the groups continue to revise and rehearse, they can consider the following questions:

  • What do we want our audience to learn and feel about this event?
  • Who are the characters in this event? How would their voices sound?
  • How can we use our voices to convey each character’s ideas and emotions about this event most effectively?
  • If sound effects are used, how do they contribute to the play’s message?
  • How can we best communicate the historic significance of this event?

Performing and Assessing the Radio Play
If the students perform the radio play for their classmates, the teacher should remind them that radio plays are usually heard, not seen. If the play is taped, the teacher should ask the audience to imagine they are listening to this play on their home or car radio. After listening, they can discuss how it portrayed the event and how it relates to the literature they have read. The students might list what they consider the most effective moments in the plays they heard so that they can understand how the characterization, writing, sound effects, and acting worked. In Laina Jones’s class, the students also sent audiocassettes of their play to local university radio stations, along with persuasive letters explaining why the stations should broadcast the play.

Tips and Variations for the Radio Play

  • In a class like Laina Jones’s, in which students are reading, viewing, and listening to many different texts that support the study of a central novel, the radio play can be especially powerful. Because the students have a great deal of background knowledge to draw upon (including, in this case, the novel The Watsons Go to Birmingham – 1963, the PBS documentary Eyes on the Prize, children’s books on civil rights events, and photographs from the era), they have a plethora of details with which to create scripts. But radio plays can focus on works of fiction alone. The students might create a “missing scene” that does not appear in the book, but could — for instance, a scene that takes place “off stage” that explains a character’s motivation or gives readers greater insight into a relationship or event.
  • Students could also create radio plays that depict “prologues” or “epilogues” — that is, scenes that might happen before or after the book’s events. To do this, they will have to imagine conversations, events, or relationships suggested by the text. The teacher will want to give the students feedback during the creative process to help them ground their radio plays in the text, and to help them find good nonfiction sources to extend their understanding of the text’s cultural context. When the students present their work, the class can discuss which scenes are most plausible and why.

Benefits of the Radio Play

The radio play enables students to explore the cultural context of literature. As students research and retell a historic event, they write and speak in the voices of the event’s participants, and, in effect, “walk in their shoes.”

  • Students discover how their voices communicate both ideas and emotions about history. By communicating those ideas and emotions, they gain a more “hands-on” understanding of an event.
  • By revising their writing and rehearsing their radio play, and by listening to classmates’ radio plays, students learn how historical fiction is written, and thereby hone their writing, speaking, and listening skills.


Literature Circles


Literature circles engage students in rich conversations about shared readings. Students can express their opinions, predictions, and questions about a text in a productive, structured way. The teacher may ask students to take on specific group roles, such as summarizer or director, which are designed to develop reading, speaking, and thinking abilities. As the students become more skilled in literature circle conversations, they can move beyond specific role assignments.

Literature Circles in Laina Jones’s Classroom

Laina Jones uses literature circles each time her class studies a novel, so that the students can experience different roles several times over the course of the year. In the exploration of The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963, the students change roles each time the groups meet. Jones circulates, listening and eliciting connections to the novel’s social and historical context.

Literature Circle Roles

The narrator and discussion director develops questions about the text’s “big ideas.” For example, the director might ask, “How did you feel while you were reading this part of the book?” or “What do you think the most important parts were?” Laina Jones tells her students to remember that a discussion director should ask “open-ended” rather than simple “yes/no” questions.

The investigator and literary luminary locates sections in the text to read aloud. This helps the group remember the most interesting, funny, powerful, or even puzzling parts of the text.

The summarizer writes a short précis of that day’s reading. It should contain the main ideas and/or the most important moments.

The connector helps the group connect what they’re reading and the world outside by sharing his or her own connections.

The vocabulary enricher finds words that are puzzling, unfamiliar, or special, then looks up the definitions and reports them to the group. In Laina Jones’s class, for example, a student asks the group what they think “linoleum” might mean.

The illustrator draws something related to the reading — a sketch, cartoon, diagram, flow chart, or even a stick figure scene. In Laina Jones’s class, a student draws a scene from The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 where the father punishes his son by shaving the boy’s head.

Though the literature circle process begins with assigning students specific roles to follow, most of the students will internalize the roles after practice. Eventually, small groups can meet and engage in literature discussions without the roles (though the teacher may still want to have the groups follow some protocol, such as taking notes or keeping time in each session).

Assessment of Literature Circles

As the students discuss the reading selection in the literature circle, the teacher listens, takes notes, and monitors the students’ abilities to contribute to the discussion through their assigned roles. After all the literature circles have completed their discussions, the students can present their insights and questions to the rest of the class. The teacher can also lead the class in an assessment of the literature circles by asking the following questions:

  • Based on our literature circles, what are the most important ideas you learned about your reading selection today?
  • How well did each member of your literature circle contribute in his or her assigned role?
  • What went well in your literature circle?
  • What would you do to improve our literature circles?

Benefits of Literature Circles

In literature circles, every student can participate in conversation. They are often less intimidated than they might be in a class discussion. The students are also actively constructing their own meanings of a text, rather than waiting for a teacher to “give” them an official meaning.

  • By practicing the analytic strategies of each group role, students become cannier, more resourceful readers.
  • The different roles in a literature circle show students that historical texts may embrace multiple perspectives, depending on who is telling the story of history. As the students bring these perspectives to the entire group, everyone benefits and learns from one another.
  • As students try out various roles and learn ways to talk about a text, they begin to internalize these habits and perspectives; eventually, they can discuss literature productively while guiding the conversation themselves.


Teaching Strategies Resources


Daniels, Harvey. Literature Circles: Voice and Choice in Book Clubs and Reading Groups. Portland, ME: Stenhouse, 2002.
Harvey Daniels presents strategies, tips, and examples for using literature circles, as well as sample role sheets for students.

Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic. Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge.Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2000.
This collection of essays deals with the social construction of race as well as issues of race that are embedded in contemporary social and legal structures.

Graham, Maryemma, Sharon Pineault-Burke, and Marianna W. Davis, eds.Teaching African American Literature: Theory and Practice. New York: Routledge, 1998.
Teachers discuss methods for teaching African American literature in middle school, high school, and college English classes.

Lee, Carol D. Signifying as a Scaffold for Literary Interpretation: The Pedagogical Implications of an African American Discourse Genre. Urbana, IL: NCTE, 1993.
The author explores African American discourse patterns as they are enacted in conversation and literature, and discusses ways of facilitating African American students’ literacy development through this discourse.

Menkart, Deborah, Alana D. Murray, and Jenice L. View, eds. Putting the Movement Back Into Civil Rights Teaching. Washington, D.C.: Teaching for Change and the Poverty & Race Research Action Council, 2004.
This curriculum provides lessons, primary resources, and articles for K-12 educators on how to move beyond a “heroes and holidays” approach to the civil rights movement.

Thomas, Lorenzo. Sing the Sun Up: Creative Writing Ideas From African American Literature. New York: Teachers and Writers Collaborative, 1998.
This is a compilation of teaching strategies that employ creative writing as a way of understanding African American literature.