Using the Internet to Teach about Political Cartoons and Their Influence on U.S. Elections

Article excerpt

One of the most interesting and rewarding aspects of working on this column is receiving recommendations about topics for future columns and suggested websites that could be useful for classroom social studies teachers and supervisors. About a month ago, I was deliberating about what topic I'd use for this issue when I received an e-mail from Ray Heitzmann. Ray is a professor and teacher-educator at Villanova and a specialist on the use of political cartoons in the classroom. He is the author of 50 Political Cartoons for Teacking U.S. History, available from Social Studies School Service.

Ray proposed that we cooperate on a column that could draw on his knowledge of political cartoons and how to utilize them in the classroom. Since I had sat in on one of Ray's workshops a while back, I knew that we could come up with a useful column. A week or so later, the controversial New Yorker cover featuring caricatures of Barack and Michelle Obama hit the newsstands, and was subsequently discussed and analyzed by news outlets across the United States and the world. In the next paragraphs, Ray outlines the value of using political cartoons in the classroom.

A wonderful opportunity exists for classroom teachers to utilize the powerful teachable moments of the presidential election to assist student learning. The political cartoon presents a point of view concerning people, places, and events using visual imagery. The artist hopes to convey quickly a message using caricature, symbolism, and related techniques. As a classroom strategy, it offers teachers opportunities to:

   Differentiate instruction;
   Motivate at-risk students;
   Build visual literacy;
   Prepare students for standardized
      tests;
   Provide comic relief and classroom
      humor;
   Utilize alternative assessments;
   Satisfy state and national standards;
   Stimulate writing activities;
   Promote learning and retention.

The political cartoon is also of great value in enabling teachers to present a great lesson during observations by supervisors. Presentations by student teachers as part of the job acquisition process have likewise shown success. The power of this strategy unfortunately lies somewhat dormant; and clinical and experimental research documents that students have serious difficulties in working with the cartoon. Several studies over several decades concluded that viewers (adults included) could not effectively understand a cartoonist's message. Recent examples can be obtained from the The Nation's Report Card: U.S. History 2006 and The Nation's Report Card: Civics 2006, both published in May 2007. (1)

Cartoon Selection

As teachers develop their collection of cartoons, student grade level, ability level, and maturity should serve as the basic criteria for selection. Avoid risque or offensive cartoons. (Some cartoonists may utilize callous stereotyping.) Selecting classic cartoons has a particular benefit--these often appear on state and national assessments. Also the taxonomy can serve as a guide for cartoon selection--that is teachers can carefully select visual works that can be used to teach, for example, caricature or symbolism.

Additional criteria are provided by cartoonist specialists Allan Nevins and Frank Weitenkampf in their classic book, A Century of Political Cartoons: Caricature in the United States from 1800 to 1900: (2)

a. "Wit of Humor"--Usually obtained by exaggeration; the cartoon should not have been drawn for the sole purpose of comic relief.

b. "There must be a basis in truth"--the caricature must be recognizable and the cartoon's message must have a grounding in fact.

c. "Moral Purpose"--without moral earnestness no cartoonist is likely to give his work the quality of universality or permanency."

Teachers should avoid the quick laugh or the heavy handed, excessively negative cartoons that can appear on editorial pages. …