Deirdre Moore | May 2016

The Magical Tool of Tableau

Years ago I remember sitting with a fellow teaching artist and a kindergarten classroom teacher. He was going through different areas of his curriculum and asking for integration ideas. At one point, after it had come up a number of times, the three of us looked at one another and just said, “Tableau” and laughed.

There is just something about tableau that makes it a really accessible, flexible and useful tool for teachers. Although the tableau can also be used as a teaching tool, at this time of the year you may be needing or wanting to review information or check for understanding and the tableau is an engaging way to do it.

If you are not familiar with the term tableau, it is the French word for picture. Tableau is used in theatre to create frozen pictures to depict scenes, similar to illustrations in a picture book. In fact, I have often used illustrations from picture books as jumping off points for students to create tableaux (the plural form of tableau). When students recreate illustrations with their bodies, they are forced to study the facial and body expressions more carefully giving the students further insight into the story and the characters.

It can also deepen their understanding of the relationship between characters by noticing how close or far apart the characters are or which character seems to have more power in the scene based on the level and placement of their bodies in the illustration.

A good tableau should have:
1. all students frozen
2. all students keeping a focal point (eyes should be looking purposefully, locked somewhere)
3. clear facial and body expression
4. a variety of body levels (high – standing, medium or middle – sitting or crouched, low – body close to the ground)

Once students have had practice creating quality tableaux, they are ready to use them as tools to express learning. Whether you want students to demonstrate understanding of vocabulary, a concept or a process, tableau is a great tool.

For example, let’s say the students were studying the American Revolution. There may be certain vocabulary or important events you wish them to demonstrate. You could break the students up into small groups, call out a vocabulary word or important event, give each group 30-60 seconds to plan and create and then say, “Freeze” or “Tableau” and all the students should stop moving demonstrating all four of the pointers listed above and the meaning of the term or depiction of the event.

If you feel one group is particularly clear, you might want to touch one of the actors in that tableau indicating to them that they may “unfreeze” and tell you how they are demonstrating the meaning of the term or what character or element they represent in the event. Or, you may see a group whose tableau is unclear to you so you touch the shoulder of one of the actors in that tableau for them to unfreeze and explain their thinking. It’s a quick way to check for comprehension once the students are adept at the process of making tableaux.

Tableaux are also a wonderful way to represent a process or a series of events. The students may need to prepare by creating a quick storyboard to depict the specific steps or events.  Then each group in the class might depict just one of the steps so the whole class is demonstrating the process or a chronological series of events or you could assign each group to create 3 or 6 tableaux to demonstrate the whole process or series. The groups could then perform for the whole class having the class identify what they see or have the groups perform concurrently while you watch for understanding telling them when to break to create the next tableaux in the series or process.

As you begin to wrap up the year and review concepts, think about using tableau to help the students demonstrate their learning. The students will be forced to think about the material more deeply, problem solve with each other and demonstrate their learning without having to sit at a desk and write papers that you will then have to correct. You may be able to do quick checks of comprehension while giving the students the opportunity to review content and learn from one another.

To help younger students think more independently about the elements of the arts, click below to check out our “Arts-Integration Student Placemat”

About the Author

Deirdre is a teaching artist and AI coach in the San Diego public schools dedicated to helping classroom teachers make arts an integral part of their teaching. Deirdre has an MEd in Arts Integration and over twenty years of classroom and performing arts teaching experience. Email Deirdre.