Incorporating Political Cartoons in the Classroom
District: Capital Region BOCES, NERIC
School District Representative: Steven Janover
SLO Project Name: Political Cartoons in the Classroom
Authored by: Steven Janover
Homepage address:
Grade Levels: 9-12
Subject Areas: Social Studies, English
Learning Context:

   Actual Learning Standards Referenced:


Students will be assessed on:

  • their ability to identify the use of persuasive techniques and symbolism in political cartoons.
  • completion of four Cartoon Analysis Worksheets.
  • participation in a Summary and Wrap-up activity.
  • their knowledge of history and background information in the process of interpreting political cartoons.

Student Outcomes (Exemplars):

1) Student is able to analyze and interpret a political cartoon found in newspapers, magazines, standardized tests, etc.
2) Pupil completes the four Cartoon Analysis Worksheets.
3) Student is able to participate in the Summary and Wrap-up activity.
4) Students should be able to apply some of the procedures and methodology learned in this project to other topics in history and in other subject areas.


Modern American political cartoons have been around since the nineteenth century. The increase in newspaper and magazine circulation in the 1800's provided a rich environment for the rise and use of political cartoons. Thomas Nast and Joseph Keppler penned many popular cartoons advocating social reform. People with minimal reading abilities could understand and relate to a format that communicated powerful ideas in a humorous, enlightened manner. Symbols, caricature, drawings, and exaggerations drawn by the cartoonist, point out the themes and problems of that historical era. Political cartoons play an important part in telling the history of a era.

Political cartoons serve to make people think about political and government issues by:

  • providing readers with additional viewpoints
  • assuming the reader has enough background knowledge about the issues to understand the message
  • emphasizing one side of an issue or concern
  • utilizing humor
  • relying on drawings to make a point

Some of the benefits of using political cartoons in the classroom are that they can:

  1. promote interest in political issues
  2. help develop students' analytical thinking skills
  3. encourage creativity
  4. help prepare students for questions on the Social Studies Assessments and Regents Exams

Cartoonists use the following persuasive techniques to create humor:

symbolism - using an object to stand for an idea.
caricature - exaggerating a physical feature or habit: big nose, bushy eyebrows, large ears, baldness.
captioning and labels - used for clarity and emphasis.
analogy - a comparison between two unlike things that share some characteristics.
irony - the difference between the way things are and the way things should be or the way things are expected to be.
juxtaposition - positioning people or objects near each other, side-by-side.
- overstating or magnifying a problem.

Symbols used in Political Cartoons

peace - dove, olive branch, victory sign.
United States - Uncle Sam, flag, stars and stripes, shield.
Democrats - donkey.
Republicans - elephant.
death - vulture, skeleton with shroud, skull and crossbones, grim reaper.
love - heart, Cupid, Venus.
money - dollar bill or dollar sign.
heroes or good guys - wear white.
villains or bad guys - wear black.

Steps in Analyzing a Political Cartoon

  1. Identify the characters, symbols and objects in the cartoon.
  2. Look for clues and details that would given 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.

Suggested Questions:

  1. What is the event or issue that inspired the cartoons?
  2. What background knowledge do you need to understand the message?
  3. Are there any real people in the cartoon?
  4. Did the artist use caricatures?
  5. Are these symbols in the cartoons?
  6. What is the cartoonist's opinion about the topic portrayed?
  7. Does the caption help you understand the message?
  8. Do you agree or disagree with the cartoonists option? Why?

Period 1: Introduction to Topic - The instructor introduces the topic and explains the objectives, terminology, and rationale for exploring the topic. Information listed above can be used. Students are given sample cartoons and websites to explore.

Period 2: Explanation of Persuasive Techniques - definitions and examples of persuasive techniques are presented. Students are also asked to try the practice activity located at: 

Period 3: Worksheet completion - students complete the Cartoon Analysis Worksheet for four different cartoons which are supplied by the teacher. Cartoons for this exercise are located on a cartoon bank page. The worksheets should be saved to the students' home directory and edited in Microsoft Word. Completed worksheets can be E-mailed or printed and sent to the teacher.

Period 4: Summary and Wrap-up - The final class session for this project involves returning graded worksheets to the students and discussing the range of possible answers and interpretations of the cartoons. See sample completed Cartoon Analysis Worksheet and Grading Rubric.  Students should also be graded on their participation in the summary activity and given extra credit for any background historical information they can present in analyzing the cartoons. If time allows, students can be directed to locate their own political cartoons on the Web for analysis.

Instructional Modifications: large typeface display for visually impaired students may be used.

Time Required: Four forty minute class periods.

Resources (materials):
   Web sites utilized:

Analyzing Political Cartoons
Association of American Editorial Cartoonists
Corporate Governance Lesson Plan
Editorial Cartoons in the Classroom

FDR Cartoon Collection Database
It's No Laughing Matter - Analyzing Political Cartoons
NARA: Digital Classroom - Teaching with Documents
Political Cartoons
Political Cartoons in the Classroom
Political and Editorial Cartoons in U.S. History
Teachers' Guide for the Professional Cartoonists' Index
Truman Library & Museum Cartoons & Teaching Activities 
Using Political Cartoons in the Classroom


This project can be adapted to other topics in history, such as Global History and Geography, and for elementary and middle school students.