Monday, August 18, 2014

Teaching Using Paintings and Tableau

My sixth grade U.S. history class begins the year with the signing of the Constitution. As I began planning, I had a few goals in mind. First, I wanted an exercise that would be content rich, yet at the same time introduce them to the methods I like to use in my classroom. Secondly, I wanted to be able to early on integrate the arts in a real and powerful way. To do that, I chose to have them work with a painting and create a tableau of the scene.

On the first day, I began by showing them Howard Chandler Christy's Signing of the Constitution. We spend a few minutes studying and examining the painting. The students enjoyed this part as they all noticed different things in the art. At times, I restricted comments to one per student so that everyone had a chance to notice or comment on something they saw. The painting becomes the focus of our tableau. So after we examine it thoroughly, we discuss some of the situations that resulted in the Constitutional Conventions and some of the debates that occurred. My students would have discussed this the previous year in social studies, so it is a chance to review and refresh for them.

Next, I provided them with a diagram that lets them know who the people are. At this time, I ask them to let me know which names they recognize.   Now that we have names and numbers to correspond to the men in the painting, I ask them who they find interesting. Students have a chance to tell me with whom they most identify. At that point, I invite them to come and take their place in front of the room as we do our best to recreate the painting. (My class only has 10 students so we only partially recreate it, but this painting provides 40 possible individuals to use- so it meets the needs of both large and small classes.) 

[At this point, I stopped the class and we practiced some focusing exercises that help the students keep their positions during the tableau. Experienced theater students may not need this, but it helps me to teach some drama techniques alongside my academic content. ]

As the pictures of my two classes on the left demonstrate, some figures are included in both classes, while each class chose the people that interested them.  I allow them a few minutes to freeze in the positions and imagine what their individual might be thinking. They then get to take a minute to come alive and become the people from the painting. I challenge them to say whatever they think their chosen historical figure is thinking or saying in the painting. It really is fun to hear the students' imaginations come alive and the room gets a little loud. (Of course, I imagine it was loud in Independence Hall during the painting as well.) This part could be omitted, but I believe in allowing the students some creative play within the lesson.

I concluded class by inviting the students to use the iPads to research the individual they have chosen and learn about them and their role in the Constitutional Convention.

On the second day, the students are given two assignments. First, I instruct them to write a monologue given from the perspective of the historical figure they have chosen. (If needed this gives me an opportunity to teach monologue and the difference between first and third person.) The students use the iPads to conduct research and then write. Secondly, I let them make or choose a prop. For this tableau, we made colonial powdered wigs using cotton balls and painters hats. If I were in a hurry, I could omit that part, but it allows the students to work with their hands and create as I circulate and check progress on the monologues. 

At the conclusion of the second day, I assign any loose ends for homework and ask the students to review their monologues. Some students are happy with their creations and some will, of course, take their wigs home to perfect. At this point, it might be helpful to provide a rubric for grading the monologues if a grade is going to be part of the process. Since we were in the first week of school, I was grading on participation and did not provide a detailed rubric.
The third day was performance. For this project, our audience was simply the teacher and the class. One class had a few more run-through before the "graded" performance, while scheduling hurried my other class. 

One final time, we re-created the painting and froze in positions. Then, one by one the figures would come alive, tell his story, and then return to his position in the painting. 

For time's sake, I assisted with helping them structure and decide the order of the monologues and gave them some tips on staying frozen in tableau as their characters "come alive."
However, as each student read his or her monologue, I was impressed. Each had come away with a little knowledge of the role his or her historical figure had played in the creation of the Constitution- and combined the class gained active understanding in the issues the Founding Fathers faced. 

Practically, there are a number of modifications one could make to this task. I could provide handouts in lieu of using the iPads. A second useful changewould be to create a template for the students to use in creating the monologues. I gave mine a great deal of freedom, and as a result, the quality and length varied.

Finally, my goals in the assignment were simply to enhance learning about the signers of the Constitution by integrating arts into the lesson. If given time to revise monologues and rehearse, students could deliver monologues from memory and create a more polished performance. Those weren't my goals, so we completed the tasks in three days.

I've included a video of one of the classes below.

Teachers feel free to comment, leave suggestions, or mention ways you could adapt this to your classes.