Taking Dramatic Action

Lesson Plan: Liberty and Freedom

Upper Elementary, Middle


VS.4, VS.5, US1.5, US1.6

Demonstrating Comprehension; Making Connections; Organizing Information; Questioning and Critical Thinking; Using Information Resources

This lesson also meets national content standards for social studies and language arts.



This lesson will help students:

Understand the role James Lafayette played in the American Revolution

Question the decisions that people involved in the American Revolution were forced to make

Research and share the details surrounding a historical figure or incident

Essential Question: 

To what lengths will people go to protect liberty and freedom?

Day 1 Session at a Glance:

Introduction (9 minutes)

Primary Source Activity, Looking at Dunmore’s Proclamation (10-15 minutes)

Slave Spy Video and Discussion (20-35 minutes)

Wrap-Up (1 minute)

Day 2 Session at a Glance:

Introduction (1 minute)

Sharing Predictions for the end of Slave Spy (15 minutes)

Slave Spy Video and Discussion (25 minutes)

Class Brainstorm (15 minutes)

Wrap-Up (1 minute)

Day 3 Session at a Glance:

Introduction/Class Brainstorm (10 minutes)

Group Division and Selection of Topic (10 minutes)

Introduction to Tableaux (5 minutes)

Research (25-30 minutes)

Notes from the Curator (5 minutes)

Wrap-Up (1 minute)

Day 4 Session at a Glance:

Introduction (1 minute)

Complete Research (10 minutes)

Wisdom from the Playwright (5 minutes)

Writing the Tableaux (20-30 minutes)

Practice Tableaux (10 minutes)

Wrap-Up (1 minute)

Day 5 Session at a Glance:

Introduction (1 minute)

Practicing the Tableaux and Peer Critiques (30 minutes)

Performance (30 minutes)

Wrap-Up (5 minutes)

DAY 1 Step-By-Step:


Over the next few sessions, we’re going to work together to learn stories about our community and tell them through acting. Along the way, we’ll learn more about how to create a piece of drama.

What are some of the ways that we learn stories? (television, movies, books, textbooks, comic books, out loud from relatives, friends, and family, online, newspapers, theater, dance, puppet shows)

Acting (in movies, on TV, in a theater) can be a powerful way to tell a story because it includes real people pretending that the story is happening to them. Some museums use acting as a way to tell stories about the past. Let’s take a look at an example of an actor pretending to be a man named James Lafayette. James lived about 250 years ago, so the actor is pretending it’s a long time ago and that his audience is also from 250 years in the past.

Primary Source Analysis:

We will have a better understanding of our story if we take a closer look at the historical context. To establish that context we will look at a really important primary source.

Document Analysis Worksheet

Primary Source Analysis Tool

On November 7, 1775, on board His Majesty King George’s ship, William, Lord Dunmore, Governor of the rebellious colony of Virginia, declared martial law. Colonists who continued to oppose the laws of the King would be traitors. It was Dunmore’s desire to raise an army of those loyal to the King so that right order could be restored to the King’s colony. He thereby issued the following order:

“…I do hereby further declare all indented servants, Negroes or others, …free, that are able to and willing to bear arms, they joining His Majesty’s Troops, as soon as may be, for the more speedily reducing the Colony to a proper sense of their duty, to His Majesty’s crown and dignity.”

Put yourself back in Yorktown on November 15, 1775, when Lord Dunmore’s order was made public. How would you feel or how might you act if you were …

A “rebellious” colonist?

A slave of that rebellious colonist?

A loyalist?

A slave of that loyalist?

What do you think actually happened as a result of the Governor’s proclamation?

Watch the video and Class Discussion:

Utilizing the following discussion questions after each scene:

Slave Spy discussion questions:

What choice did James and other enslaved African Americans have with regards to freedom in the early years of the Revolutionary War?

What factors influenced their decision?

What is different about the way that James and Armistead talk about liberty, freedom, and slavery? What is the same?

What is the plan that James suggests to Lafayette?

Why did Lafayette send James to work with Arnold?

How did Cornwallis change the plan?

James says liberty and freedom “suddenly seem to mean two different things.” What do you think that he means by this?

Do you agree with the definitions of liberty and freedom that James comes up with?

Do you think that a spy is a hero or a traitor?


What do you think happens to James? Think about all that we have discussed today to make your prediction. We will start the next class period with your predictions, then see what really happened before moving forward with our project.

Teacher Background: Dunmore’s Proclamation

DAY 2 Step By Step:

Class Discussion:

Ask students to first share what they thought were the important takeaways from the previous lesson. Next, ask students to share their predictions on what will happen to James. If time allows, review the ideas of liberty and freedom, in particular, whether or not those ideas mean the same today as they did for James.

Finish the Movie and Discussion:

Why wasn’t James granted his freedom following the conclusion of the Revolutionary War?

Do you think that James made the right decision? What decision would you have made in similar circumstances?

After the video, discuss:

Just from watching the video, what hints do we have that the actor is pretending to be in the past? (costume, very formal style of speaking)

The terms liberty, freedom, slavery, and patriot were used many times throughout the play by each of the characters, and many times had different meanings.

Do you agree or disagree with any of the definitions shared in the play?

How would you define each of these terms today?

How have the meanings of each of these important concepts changed over time?

What were the most memorable parts of the story James told? What parts were most important for the audience to remember?


During the next few sessions, we’ll learn more about stories that deal with the themes of liberty and freedom from our own community, write a performance to go with the stories, and then we’ll perform the stories. Our final project will be a theater presentation, like the video we watched today. Let’s start a class discussion now, and tonight, talk with your family about the meanings of liberty and freedom. See if your family agrees on these qualities, and if they have examples of stories that illustrate liberty and freedom in modern times.

Note for the educator:

Consider who you and your students may want to involve as an audience for the performance. This could involve parents and family members, other classes or grades within the school, and/or interested community partners. Consider filming each performance and sharing it through the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation “In the Name of Liberty” initiative on HistoryPin.

DAY 3 Step by Step:


Today we’ll focus our learning about historic events, historical individuals, and theater and select events that will be the focus of our projects. We’ll learn a kind of “frozen” theater called tableaux (tabl-loh) that will be used for our project.

Have students break into groups to identify an event or person connected to your community that relates to the ideals of freedom and liberty. (The ideal group will include 4 to 6 students. Ideal classes will include 3 or 4 tableau groups.)


Try to name some important events in your community’s history. Start with the recent past and then think further back in history. Was any one person an important leader in helping your community through that milestone?

Find out the names of your mayor, governor, Congressional representatives and Senators.

Now think about other people who are leaders in your community. Is your principal a good leader? Who is the leader of your community center? Does your community have a sports team? Who is its coach?

Have you ever met someone important to your community? Did you think s/he was a good leader?

Note to Educator:

Depending on the size of your community, you might want to consider your “larger” community, such as the rest of your county or state, for ideas.

If the students are struggling to find a local leader or are very excited about a national or international leader, don’t be afraid to follow their enthusiasm.

Other sources of ideas:

Ask the principal of your school or director of your community center to speak with the students and respond to the prompt questions.

If you have the time and resources, consider asking for a visit from someone from the local historical society or history museum. The speaker might recommend a specific local leader and/or offer suggestions for research sources.

Find the website of your local newspaper or review a printed copy of the newspaper. Are there any names that seem to appear over and over again?

There are a number of individuals profiled on jyfmuseums.org, who would make excellent choices for this project.

Take a few minutes to introduce the idea of tableaux-style theater to the students. If you think it would help, there are number of short examples of this art form available on YouTube.

Introduction to Tableaux

Tableaux performance uses actors in still poses to convey a story. In our version of tableaux performance, a group of actors will take a pose in a scene and a narrator will read aloud a description of that scene. The tableaux actors will not speak or move in their scene, but will instead freeze like statues. Think of it like a comic strip, where a story happens over several frozen scenes. Between scenes, the narration pauses and the actors move silently and smoothly to their positions for the next scene.  

Why Tableaux?

We recommend using a tableaux style performance for the following reasons:

Students do not need to memorize lines.

Students who struggle with public speaking can still participate meaningfully.

Tableaux performances tend to be easier to produce in a shorter amount of time, compared to other forms of theater.

Writing a tableau encourages students to distill a story into its most important parts.

Specific Tips for Creating Great Tableaux

Select a clear and confident narrator for each tableau.

Encourage students to use expressive faces and body language.

Students should plan for smooth transitions between scenes.

When the narrator finishes with the scene’s narration, s/he should pause to allow the actors to move, then begin again once the next scene is set.

If the narration for a scene is short, have the actors hold their positions for a short period after the narration is complete.

The audience should have at least 20 seconds to see each scene.

In each scene, the visual focus should be clear. When the visual focus is clear, the audience knows what actor or group of actors is most important. 

After students have selected their subject, and before they begin the research, please play the short video “Wisdom from a Curator”. A curator from the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation will provides some insight on historical storytelling, using primary sources, and inferring information when there are no sources.

Encourage students to begin researching the individuals or events they have selected. Different sources of information could be useful depending on how famous the subject is or how recent the event. In addition to sources from the web, suggest that students look at books and local newspapers, and consider interviews where appropriate.

As students continue to research, and begin to determine what will be included in their tableaux, remind them that the objective is to share the most relevant information, and that they will be asked to share key points with the class during the next period.

DAY 4 Step-by-Step:

Once the students are back in their groups, ask the groups to discuss the most interesting or relevant findings from their research.

Have students draw a comic strip style scene for that part of their stories.

Have each group report out on their scenes.

If needed, give the groups a bit more time to complete their research and determine the basic plot lines of their tableaux.

Have each group create their own plot diagram for the story of their local leader. Identify the beginning, middle, and end of the story they are telling, keeping the following in mind:

Keep each scene to approximately four to six sentences.

Try to have at least one scene for the beginning, middle, and end parts of the story. You don’t want to cut off any important details at the beginning or leave your audience wondering about the ending.

Keep each tableau to about five or six scenes, but definitely no more than ten scenes. Otherwise it can get hard to remember what poses happen in which scene.

With any time left in the period, encourage students to begin practicing their scenes. This practice may help in the final stages of writing, to make for smoother transitions, and present the story clearly.

Educator Notes and Tips on Writing the Tableaux:

Encourage students to consider the characters and settings involved at each point of the plot. If students are struggling, consider using the following prompts.


You don’t need an elaborate background to describe a setting. You’ll just need to tell the audience about the setting through actions or in your narration.

Narration: How much of the setting details do you want to present at once? You could provide context at the beginning for your audience. Or, do you want to provide bits and pieces of this information as hints throughout the scene?

Actions: How much of your setting can you tell your audience about using acting? There are a number of things that can be conveyed including weather, location, and time of day.


Most of your character’s traits and actions will be conveyed through narration and tableau poses.

Characteristics or actions that are hard to act out can be described in the narration.

Characteristics or actions that are really important to the story should be in both the narration and in the tableau poses.

If students have more scenes than they can handle, suggest combining scenes that don’t have much action in them. For example, a scene that mostly defines the setting, could be combined with a scene that has more action. The acting students would mostly focus on portraying the actions in the scene, and the narrator would describe the setting out loud for the audience.

DAY 5 Step-by-Step:


Remind students that this is the last bit of preparation before the performance of their work.

Practicing the Tableaux and Peer Critiques

Instruct each group of students to present their tableau, and ask the other groups to be the audience. Have students take turns offering critique on the performances. Students that are not actively performing should provide constructive feedback.

Let students know that critique is a useful skill in theater, but is also an important part of being a good leader and can help build positive relationships. Good leaders are able to help others through being kind, specific, and helpful, and are able to accept critique from others.

Examples of Bad Critique vs. Good Critique

Bad Critique:

That was boring.

The costumes were wrong.

Your accent wasn’t right.

Good Critique:

It could have been more exciting if you would have moved around the space more during that scene. 

The costumes didn’t look the same as what we found doing our research. The jackets you all used were much longer.

It was difficult to understand some of what you said with that accent, especially if you were talking quickly.

Note for the Educator:

Critique focuses on a straight-forward two-way exchange of ideas. Critique involves evaluation, speaking thoughtfully, listening carefully, and considering the feelings of another person. These skills are all part of leadership and career development and can contribute greatly to a positive learning environment. Critique touches upon several aspects of 21st-Century Skills, including communication and collaboration, social and cross-cultural skills, and leadership and responsibility.

Inform students that critique comments must be kind, specific, and helpful. Remind them of these guidelines as necessary.


Ask students to consider the project as a whole and provide a critique. Specifically ask students to consider:

What was your favorite part of working on this project?

What was your least favorite part of working on this project?

What new information did you learn while working on this project?

What skills did you improve or learn while working on this project?