Living Images: Bringing History to Life


In an activity based on the Living Images strategy, students work in groups to recreate historical photographs by performing a series of “freeze frames” that capture the moments depicted in the photos. Such an activity helps students develop a deeper understanding of a particular moment in history, while providing them with an opportunity to practice collaborating with their peers as they brainstorm, direct, and perform their scenes.


  1. Select Images
    Identify a collection of photographs that reveal important information about the time period the class is studying. Ideally, these pictures should contain enough figures so that everyone in the group is involved in each “living image” (or most of them are). Typically, teachers give groups of students (with four to six students per group) a set of four to six photographs. This activity works best if groups receive different photographs. Through the performances, students get to learn about the images that the other groups have been assigned. While this strategy is often used with photographs, you could also use paintings, political cartoons, or other pictures for the activity, as long as the images contain people.
  2. Provide Students with Directions
    Here are directions you can put on the board or print out for students to refer to as they engage with this activity.

    1. Review each picture, one by one, and answer the following questions:

    • What is the context for this picture? When and where was it taken?
    • What do you see? Specifically, what do you notice about the people in this image? Who are they? How do you think they are feeling? What might they be thinking?
    • What does this image tell you about the time period?

    2. After answering these questions for each picture, create a “living image” for each one. A “living image” recreates the scene from the picture in real life. Think of yourselves as actors who are supposed to assume the physical positions, gestures, and facial expressions of the figures in the photograph. Each image should have a “director” who helps to coordinate the scene. The picture should be a “freeze frame,” where actors hold their position for at least ten seconds.

    3.Once you have created your living images, decide in which order you would like to display them. Then work on transitioning from one image to the next so that your group can present these pictures seamlessly to the larger class.

    Adapt these directions to fit your own classroom needs. To help groups work more independently through these steps, you may want to have them assign roles.

  3. Students Perform
    Groups share their work with the full class. Groups present their living images in silence. The audience interprets the scenes as they view them. After each group presents, they can take questions from the audience. Between performances, students can record what they learned about the historical time period from viewing these “living images.”
  4. Debrief
    After all groups have performed, you can facilitate a class discussion about what the “living images” reveal about the time period. Students may arrive at different interpretations of what they viewed. Encourage students to use evidence to defend their interpretations, and invite students to change their interpretations as they hear their peers’ ideas.
  5. Students Reflect
    Give students the opportunity to write in their journals about their experience with this activity. Here are prompts you might use to structure journal writing:
    • If you were doing this activity again, what would you keep the same? What do you wish you or your group did differently?
    • What did you learn about working with other people from doing this activity?
    • What was the easiest part of this activity? What part was the most challenging for you?


  • Abridged Version: Rather than have groups act out several pictures, you could assign each group one photograph each.
  • Students Find Their Own Images: Instead of selecting images for students, you could add a research component to this exercise by having students find and select their own photographs. The assignment could include properly citing sources and explaining the significance of the image or images they selected.
  • Add Music: To emphasize the mood expressed by each picture, you could have students select music to accompany their performance.

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