Breaking the Barriers to Political Cartoon Analysis

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If a picture is worth 1000 words, then the layers of nuance and meaning in a political cartoon (often with some strategically placed text) must be worth at least 10,000. Those primary source text documents we love to throw at students are great, but political cartoons can offer a change of scenery while building the same important critical reasoning skills. It might even provide some humor, or at least a clever angle that provokes further investigation.

The symbols and analogies woven into political cartoons are illusive by design. So how can we give students the tools to analyze political cartoons and the confidence to start unleashing some of those 10,000 words of epiphany?

Curriculum Pathways offers a content-focused series for both U.S. History and World History with tools to help students decode political cartoons.

Take voting rights for women, for example. This classic political cartoon summarizes the 19th Amendment’s ratification in one clever image that gets to the heart of the struggle.

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What is going on here? What complex story is this image telling us? After spending a few minutes considering various elements of the image, this online tool can help students break it down.

The interactivity provides handy rollovers to help define text references like “National Suffrage” and “Ratification.”

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Next students can start determining  what emotions are communicated by the central figure. Does she seem in a hurry, a bit apprehensive? Why? The focus is on those last few buttons. How should students interpret that part of the image? If they need a few clues, this online tool offers enough explanation to set their thinking in the right direction.

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Now take a look at this cartoon from FDR and the New Deal. What’s next for this homesteading FDR in his Granny apron?

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The Supreme Court had just overruled the National Recovery Administration (NRA) and the Agricultural Adjustment Administration (AAA). (It is interesting that both those acronyms stand for completely different organizations today.)

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What piece of equipment is he hoping to save from the Supreme Court Moving Co.?

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And what’s the power source in that little generator?

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Whether they are analyzing pertinent content presented in a political cartoon to help explain a complex issue, or creating a clever caption that highlights the attitude and meaning of the image (alla New Yorker cartoon contests), it's an engaging activity to sharpen a student’s analytical skills.

Here are some more resources from the Turning Points in U.S. History and World History series that offer political cartoon analysis activities using the online clues.

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About Author

Molly Farrow

Molly Farrow taught high school history for 11 years in Wake County and Durham County. She also taught at the Taipei American School in Taiwan. She received a M.A.T. degree from the University of North Carolina and a B.S. degree in Political Science from Wake Forest University. Outside work, she enjoys traveling and spending time with her family and their dog, Dante.

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