Political cartoons can be valuable tools for teaching kids about social studies topics as well as 21st century skills such as evaluation of bias, perspective and summarizing.

The Nebraska Studies group suggest a four step process for introducing editorial cartoons to your students.

1. Activate prior knowledge by providing historical context. For example, students will need a basic understanding of imperialism before a cartoon from the late 1800s can be analyzed.

2. Provide background information on editorial cartoons. Discuss the purpose of editorial cartoons. Make the students aware that such cartoons represent a specific viewpoint. Consequently, students should become familiar with the concept of bias. Students should, when possible, research the background of the political cartoonist.

3. Discuss the nature of editorial cartoons. Stress that such cartoons rely on oversimplification in order to clearly emphasize a particular point. Distortions of individuals and objects are frequently used to add dramatic or provocative qualities. Symbolism is used to represent reality as the cartoonist views it. Students need to know universal symbols, such as Uncle Sam, doves representing peace, and so on. The Opper Project has a couple of useful tools that ask kids to look at and think about the types of symbols and caricatures that are often used in political cartoons.

4. You can demonstrate a specific order for students to use while analyzing political cartoons:

  • Who is the author of the cartoon? Discuss the author’s background.
  • What is the topic/issue of the cartoon?
  • What social studies concept is being presented?
  • What symbols are used?
  • What exaggerations or distortions exist?
  • What message is the cartoonist presenting? The teacher may want to introduce a variety of cartoons that deal with different issues as well as social studies disciplines. Students can then compare and contrast the various cartoon examples.
  • Encourage students to discuss their reactions with their classmates

Instructional Procedures:

Collect a variety of political cartoons from your textbook supplementary materials, newspapers and internet. Using an overhead or projector, show a cartoon and model the steps students should follow in analyzing a political cartoon:

  1. Identify the characters, symbols and objects in the cartoon
  2. Look for cues and details that will give further meaning
  3. Identify the main idea of the cartoon by reading the captions and putting the message into their own words
  4. Identify any bias the cartoonist might have.

After modeling several cartoons, put students into small groups. They will look at a series of cartoons and follow the steps above to interpret them. You should allow a variety of tools to assist with their thinking. The National Archives has a useful PDF version of a cartoon analysis worksheet as does the Opper Project.

Finally, give each student their own cartoon and ask them to individually interpret the meaning based on the time period.

Assessment plan:

  • Give students a political cartoon they have not previously seen and ask them to interpret the meaning of the cartoon in written form by following the steps given in class
  • Have students create their own political cartoons for the given time period. These could drawn free hand, use a commercial product such as Comic Life or a free online site such as Comic Creator

Other resources: