Using Political Cartoons: An Activity for Students of Every Ability

By Holliday, Dwight C.; Grskovic, Janice A. | Social Education, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Using Political Cartoons: An Activity for Students of Every Ability


Holliday, Dwight C., Grskovic, Janice A., Social Education


The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) (1) guarantees that students with disabilities receive a free and appropriate education in the least restrictive environment, which is often the general education classroom. There the social studies teacher must consider the needs of students with disabilities in planning and delivering instruction. At the same time, it is also becoming increasingly important that all students develop critical thinking skills and engage in reflective thought. (2) Critical thinking, the process of determining the authenticity, accuracy, or value of something and developing an opinion based on evidence, (3) can enhance academic achievement and is viewed as characteristic of a responsible, employable citizen who can make informed decisions. (4) The challenge for many teachers is how to accommodate the needs of students with disabilities while teaching higher order thinking. Political cartoons may provide a medium to accomplish this goal.

Many political cartoonists aim to challenge the viewer to think critically about the issue being depicted in the drawing. The cartoonist employs exaggeration, symbolism, and humor to expand our thinking about the topic. Students can develop higher order thinking skills through direct instruction, modeling, and cooperative group work in which cartoons are the items of study. Students are guided to implement the Five W's of comprehension or interpretation (that is, who the cartoon is about, when, where, and what is depicted, which symbols are used, and why the message is important). By breaking down the elements of a drawing, and being familiar with the tools of the cartoonist, students can begin to see the relationships between seemingly diverse concepts. (5) Students also learn to analyze how cartoonists' use of words (arguments, stories, and slogans) and images often relies on distortions such as stereotypes, and logical argument, such as analogies. Students can see how symbols and words work together to compress information into one picture.

Some students may not readily learn critical thinking inferentially from political cartoons. (6) Specifically, students with disabilities may need additional instruction, modeling, and accommodations to learn to think critically about current political events. For example, students with learning disabilities and cognitive impairments have been reported to have a developmental lag in the cognitive structures necessary for understanding humor. (7) But these students' ability to produce cartoons did not appear to differ from that of their nonhandicapped peers. (8) In fact, cartoons have been used to remediate learning disabilities (9) and are a preferred medium among students with emotional disorders. (10)

The needs of students with diverse abilities can be accommodated in several ways. Keeping a lecture brief (15 to 20 minutes) will reduce the demand for passive attending and increase opportunities for active participation. The content of the drawing should be broken down and dearly explained. The use of guided questions to organize and analyze content helps students with mild disabilities focus their attention on relevant information and activates their prior knowledge. (11)

We encourage students to work in mixed ability, cooperative groups, which allows each one to learn from multiple perspectives. Students are asked to explain material to each other; and in doing so, they often use language that differs from that used by the teacher. (12) These groups can also provide appropriate peer models for students with disabilities. (Students are more likely to imitate models who are similar, competent, and have prestige.) (13)

Students should study a variety of cartoons before being asked to try their hands at drawing one. The teacher should model the skills of the lesson before asking students to perform them. When a teacher engages in cognitive modeling or "thinking aloud," he or she demonstrates how to organize and analyze the content, how to select strategies, and how to think reflectively. …

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