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Educator Tools: Using Editorial Cartoons

Analyzing historical, social, or political cartoons can build students’ ability to interpret a combination of visual and verbal content, along with their knowledge of past and current events.  Assigning the interpretation of cartoons is a fun way to engage students in discussion. Here are some pointers to recognizing students' ability to interpret cartoons:


  1. In classroom discussion or assignments, determine whether the students have recognized all the information in the cartoons being studied—visual as well as verbal—that helps illustrate the point the cartoonist is trying to make. For each cartoon, ask students to write down everything they see in the drawing that comments on the event. Remind them that cartoons often refer to more than one event, using the juxtaposition of different subjects to highlight the point they are trying to make. Assess their ability to understand the cartoonist's use of symbols, analogy, irony, caricature and exaggeration, among other tools.
  2. Can the students determine whether the cartoonist is liberal, conservative, or has some other perspective? Have they correctly and completely interpreted the cartoon as the basis for that determination?
  3. Do the students have an opinion on what the purpose of editorial cartoons is or should be? Should they always have a serious purpose? Are they meant to educate? Are cartoons meant to change readers’ minds about a particular topic, or do they simply intend to inform and promote discussion? Do the students see beyond the joke or absurdity of a cartoon to the serious purpose underlying it?
  4. Ask students to discuss whether cartoons have to be funny to best get their point across, or whether they should just make the reader think more incisively about a particular topic. Why is humor an effective means to express an insight or point of view?
  5. Social and political cartoons can spark intense and violent opposition, up to and including murder and terrorism. Why is this particular medium so provocative? What are circumstances, if any, in which pointed social or political cartoons should be withheld from publication?
Classroom Activities

Ask students to draw their own cartoons modeled on some they have studied in class. To start, have them read news or historical coverage of a subject they are studying. Advise them to jot down some notes reflecting their opinion on that subject, and to think about how they might go about making a visual representation of their opinions. When they have completed the cartoon, they should write an essay explaining how they transformed their opinion into a cartoon. Then:


  1. Evaluate how well the students have chosen the content of their cartoons. How original have they been in selecting their characters and other elements of the cartoon, including the use of symbols, analogy, and irony, among other tools, to best illustrate the event?
  2. Select a set of published cartoons that presents some challenge in interpretation, and ask students to write down what they think is happening in the cartoons. Can any students come up with an imaginative and entirely relevant interpretation of the cartoons that was not discernible at first glance?
  3. Have students look at cartoons in a variety of online English-language newspapers. Have them consider the editorial policy of each newspaper, and whether the cartoons it publishes reflect only its own view or a variety of opinions. Lead a discussion on whether publications should be concerned primarily with whether cartoons are effective, or also with whether they agree with the publication’s editorial philosophy.
  4. Ask the students to identify cartoons about an event that could incorporate a figure from a different historical period to help make a point about the subject matter. For example, President Richard Nixon, who resigned from office amid scandal in 1974, could have been used in a cartoon about a contemporary politician in trouble for ethics violations, to strengthen its effectiveness. Recognizing such parallels can reinforce understanding of historical events in the light of present-day realities, and vice versa.

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