Updated, Nov. 19, 2015 | We have now announced the winners of our 2015 Editorial Cartoon Contest here.
Political cartoons deliver a punch. They take jabs at powerful politicians, reveal official hypocrisies and incompetence and can even help to change the course of history. But political cartoons are not just the stuff of the past. Cartoonists are commenting on the world’s current events all the time, and in the process, making people laugh and think. At their best, they challenge our perceptions and attitudes.
Analyzing political cartoons is a core skill in many social studies courses. After all, political cartoons often serve as important primary sources, showing different perspectives on an issue. And many art, history and journalism teachers take political cartoons one step further, encouraging students to make their own cartoons.
In this lesson, we provide three resources to assist teachers working with political cartoons:
- an extended process for analyzing cartoons and developing more sophisticated interpretations;
- a guide for making cartoons, along with advice on how to make one from Patrick Chappatte, an editorial cartoonist for The International New York Times;
- a resource library full of links to both current and historic political cartoons.
Use this lesson in conjunction with our Editorial Cartoon Contest or with any political cartoon project you do with students.
Materials | Computers with Internet access. Optional copies of one or more of these two handouts: Analyzing Editorial Cartoons; Rubric for our Student Editorial Cartoon Contest.
While political cartoons are often an engaging and fun source for students to analyze, they also end up frustrating many students who just don’t possess the strategies or background to make sense of what the cartoonist is saying. In other words, understanding a cartoon may look easier than it really is.
Learning how to analyze editorial cartoons is a skill that requires practice. Below, we suggest an extended process that can be used over several days, weeks or even a school year. The strength of this process is that it does not force students to come up with right answers, but instead emphasizes visual thinking and close reading skills. It provides a way for all students to participate, while at the same time building up students’ academic vocabulary so they can develop more sophisticated analyses over time.
Throughout this process, you might choose to alternate student groupings and class formats. For example, sometimes students will work independently, while other times they will work in pairs or small groups. Similarly, students may focus on one single cartoon, or they may have a folder or even a classroom gallery of multiple cartoons.
We suggest beginning cartoon analysis using the same three-question protocol we utilize every Monday for our “What’s Going On in This Picture?” feature to help students bring to the surface what the cartoon is saying:
- What is going on in this editorial cartoon?
- What do you see that makes you say that?
- What more can you find?
These simple, open-ended questions push students to look closely at the image without pressuring them to come up with a “correct” interpretation. Students can notice details and make observations without rushing, while the cyclical nature of the questions keeps sending them back to look for more details.
As you repeat the process with various cartoons over time, you may want to ask students to do this work independently or in pairs before sharing with the whole class. Here is our editorial cartoon analysis handout (PDF) to guide students analyzing any cartoon, along with one with the above Patrick Chappatte cartoon (PDF) already embedded.
Developing an Academic Vocabulary and a Keener Eye
Once students gain confidence noticing details and suggesting different interpretations, always backed up by evidence, it is useful to introduce them to specific elements and techniques cartoonists use. Examples include: visual symbols, metaphors, exaggeration, distortion, stereotypes, labeling, analogy and irony. Helping students recognize and identify these cartoonists’ tools will enable them to make more sophisticated interpretations.
The Library of Congress (PDF) and TeachingHistory.org (PDF) both provide detailed explanations of what these elements and techniques mean, and how cartoonists use them.
In addition to those resources, three other resources that can help students develop a richer understanding of a cartoon are:
- The SOAPSTone strategy, which many teachers use for analyzing primary sources, can also be used for looking at political cartoons.
- This student handout (PDF) breaks up the analysis into two parts: identifying the main idea and analyzing the method used by the artist.
- The National Archives provides a cartoon analysis work sheet to help students reach higher levels of understanding.
Once students get comfortable using the relevant academic vocabulary to describe what’s going on in a cartoon, we suggest returning to the open-ended analysis questions we started with, so students can become more independent and confident cartoon analysts.
Making an Editorial Cartoon
Whether you are encouraging your students to enter our Student Editorial Cartoon Contest, or are assigning students to make their own cartoons as part of a history, economics, journalism, art or English class, the following guide can help you and your students navigate the process.
Learn from an Editorial Cartoonist
We asked Patrick Chappatte, an editorial cartoonist for The International New York Times, to share with us how he makes an editorial cartoon on deadline, and to offer students advice on how to make a cartoon. Before watching the film above, ask students to take notes on: a) what they notice about the process of making a cartoon, and b) what advice Mr. Chappatte gives students making their own cartoons.
After watching, ask students to share what information they find useful as they prepare to make their own editorial cartoons.
Then, use these steps — a variation on the writing process — to help guide students to make their own cartoons.
Step 1 | Brainstorm: What Is a Topic or Issue You Want to Comment On?
As a professional cartoonist, Mr. Chappatte finds themes that connect to the big news of the day. As a student, you may have access to a wider or narrower range of topics from which to choose. If you are entering a cartoon into our Student Editorial Cartoon Contest, you can pick any topic or issue covered in The New York Times, which not only opens up the whole world to you, but also historical events as well — from pop music to climate change to the Great Depression. If this a class assignment, you may have different instructions.
Step 2 | Make a Point: What Do You Want to Say About Your Topic?
Once you pick an issue, you need to learn enough about your topic to have something meaningful to say. Remember, a political cartoon delivers commentary or criticism on a current issue, political topic or historical event.
For example, if you were doing a cartoon about the deflated football scandal would you want to play up the thought that Tom Brady must have been complicit, or would you present him as a victim of an overzealous N.F.L. commissioner? Considering the Republican primaries, would you draw Donald Trump as a blowhard sucking air out of the room and away from more serious candidates, or instead make him the standard- bearer for a genuine make-America-great-again movement?
You can see examples of how two cartoonists offer differing viewpoints on the same issue in Newspaper in Education’s Cartoons for the Classroom and NPR’s Double Take.
Mr. Chappatte explains that coming up with your idea is the most important step. “How do ideas come? I have no recipe,” he says. “While you start reading about the story, you want to let the other half of your brain loose.”
Strategies he suggests for exploring different paths include combining two themes, playing with words, making a joke, or finding an image that sums up a situation.
Step 3 | Draw: What Are Different Ways to Communicate Your Ideas?
Then, start drawing. Try different angles, test various approaches. Don’t worry too much about the illustration itself; instead, focus on getting ideas on paper.
Mr. Chappatte says, “The drawing is not the most important part. Seventy-five percent of a cartoon is the idea, not the artistic skills. You need to come up with an original point of view. And I would say that 100 percent of a cartoon is your personality.”
Consider using one or more of the elements and techniques that cartoonists often employ, such as visual symbols, metaphors, exaggeration, distortion, labeling, analogy and irony.
Step 4 | Get Feedback: Which Idea Lands Best?
Student cartoonists won’t be able to get feedback from professional editors like Mr. Chappatte does at The International New York Times, but they should seek feedback from other sources, such as teachers, fellow students or even family members. You certainly can ask your audience which sketch they like best, but you can also let them tell you what they observe going on in the cartoon, to see what details they notice, and whether they figure out the ideas you want to express.
Step 5 | Revise and Finalize: How Can I Make an Editorial Cartoon?
Once you pick which draft you’re going to run with, it’s time to finalize the cartoon. Try to find the best tools to match your style, whether they are special ink pens, markers or a computer graphics program.
As you work, remember what Mr. Chappatte said: “It’s easier to be outrageous than to be right on target. You don’t have to shoot hard; you have to aim right. To me the best cartoons give you in one visual shortcut everything of a complex situation; funny and deep, both light and heavy; I don’t do these cartoons every day, not even every week, but those are the best.” That’s the challenge.
Step 6 | Publish: How Can My Editorial Cartoon Reach an Audience?
Students will have the chance to publish their editorial cartoons on the Learning Network on or before Oct. 20, 2015 as part of our Student Contest. We will use this rubric (PDF) to help select winners to feature in a separate post. Students can also enter their cartoons in the Scholastic Arts & Writing Awards new editorial cartoon category for a chance to win a national award and cash prize.
Even if your students aren’t making a cartoon for our contest, the genre itself is meant to have an audience. That audience can start with the teacher, but ideally it shouldn’t end there.
Students can display their cartoons to the class or in groups. Classmates can have a chance to respond to the artist, leading to a discussion or debate. Students can try to publish their cartoons in the school newspaper or other local newspapers or online forums. It is only when political cartoons reach a wider audience that they have the power to change minds.
Where to Find Cartoons
Finding the right cartoons for your students to analyze, and to serve as models for budding cartoonists, is important. For starters, Newspaper in Education provides a new “Cartoons for the Classroom” lesson each week that pairs different cartoons on the same current issue. Below, we offer a list of other resources:
The New York Times
A Selection of the Day’s Cartoons
Recent Winners of the Herblock Prize, the Thomas Nast Award and the Pulitzer Prize
Other Historical Cartoon Resources
Please share your own experiences with teaching using political cartoons in the comments section.
Library of Congress
The Library of Congress > Teachers > Classroom Materials > Lesson Plans > Political Cartoons: Finding Point of View
Political Cartoons: Finding Point of View
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Overview | Preparation | Procedure | Evaluation
Activity One (One Class Period)
- Begin class with a discussion about political cartoons, based around the following questions and possible responses:
- What is a political cartoon?
A political cartoon is a cartoon that makes a point about a political issue or event.
- What topics do political cartoons address?
Could include economics, politics, social issues/events, prominent individuals.
- How can you tell what the message of the political cartoon is?
By observing and analyzing the images and text.
- What is a thesis?
A main idea put forward for discussion, such as in a paragraph, an essay, or a cartoon.
- What is point of view?
A person’s belief or judgment on an issue.
- How might point of view affect a political cartoonist?
A cartoonist will be guided by his or her point of view. Cartoonists might only express their own beliefs on an issue, or they might take the point of view of others into consideration.
- What is a political cartoon?
- Introduce the concept of primary source analysis to the students. Distribute the Primary Source Analysis Tool (PDF 79 KB) to each student and explain that they will use this handout to analyze a political cartoon. Tell them that the key to primary source analysis isn’t finding the correct answer, but asking the most effective questions.
Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Political Cartoons to focus and prompt analysis and discussion. Distribute or display a recent political cartoon on an issue of current interest. Model for students the process of inquiry-based primary source analysis using questions from each column as a guide. Students should record the responses on their individual handout.
Lead students through a discussion of the point of view expressed in this cartoon.
- Have students create a political cartoon that communicates a different point of view than the one they analyzed.
Activity Two (One Class Period)
- Have students pair up and share the political cartoons they created. Remind students of the primary source analysis process they went through previously, and ask them to discuss each other’s cartoons for five minutes. Distribute the Primary Source Analysis Tool handout, and ask students to discuss each other’s cartoons.
- Explain to students that they will be analyzing a historical political cartoon and thinking about the political cartoonist’s point of view. Distribute “The repeal, or the funeral of Miss Ame=Stamp” (PDF, 863 KB) to each student, along with the Primary Source Analysis Tool (PDF, 79 KB). Have students perform a primary source analysis on the cartoon, recording their responses on their individual copies of the handout. Ask students to evaluate the cartoon to examine the cartoonist’s point of view. If students need prompting use questions selected from the teacher's guide Analyzing Political Cartoons to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
Note: If you feel students need additional information on the Stamp Act, you might review the relevant material in this Library of Congress exhibition, John Bull and Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations.
- Discuss the two handouts once students complete them, or after collecting them, evaluating them, and returning them to students.
- Have students analyze another political cartoon about the Stamp Act, “Magna Britannia” (PDF, 323 KB) by Benjamin Franklin. Have students complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool (PDF/79KB), and then discuss the differences between “Magna Britannia” (PDF, 323 KB) and “The repeal, or the funeral of Miss Ame=Stamp.” (PDF, 863 KB). Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Political Cartoons to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
- The Stamp Act was not the only legislation imposed on the American colonists by the British government. Have students explore the exhibition John Bull & Uncle Sam: Four Centuries of British-American Relations to locate another political cartoon that addresses the legislation from the perspective of the colonists. Analyze this new cartoon with the Primary Source Analysis Tool (PDF, 79 KB) . Before the students begin, select questions from the teacher’s guide Analyzing Political Cartoons to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
- Using one of the following Library of Congress collections, have students locate a political cartoon that deals with an aspect of history that they are familiar with and analyze it using the Primary Source Analysis Tool (PDF, 79 KB)
- Using the online activity It’s No Laughing Matter, have students analyze the persuasive techniques used in Civil Rights political cartoons.