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Lesson Plans

The Medium is the Message: Pictures are Worth a Thousand Words — Political Cartoons

Gerhard Albert Fuerst of Kalamazoo Central High School in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Gerhard Albert Fuerst
Kalamazoo Central High School
Kalamazoo, Mich.

Title: Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words — The Medium Is the Message: Political Cartoons: Their Role, Purpose, and Function in Journalism — A Historical Perspective

Description of the School and the Students

Kalamazoo Central High School is an urban-suburban secondary school with an enrollment of 1,450 students and a staff of 86 teachers. Additionally, KCHS is an intern teacher training site for the directed teaching experience of students from Western Michigan University. The ratio of minority to non-minority students is approximately 45:55. This unit is designed for l1th- and 12th-grade students in a required class of American government. KCHS operates on a block schedule of 90 minutes per class period.

Generative Topic

Political Cartoons — Means to an End? What are they? What purpose(s) do or did they serve in journalism today and in the past? Time needed for this unit: Approximately one week of class time. (Note: KCHS operates on a block schedule of 90 minutes per class session).

Generative Objects

  • The students will be invited to view and comment on a vast array of political cartoons of recent origin and past vintage, displayed on every available bulletin board space in the classroom.
  • These cartoons will be arranged
    • a. to display the works of particularly well-known cartoonists, past and present.
    • b. to show that cartoons deal with different topics and subject categories.
    • c. to demonstrate how different artists deal with the same subject of interest (examination of style, approach, treatment, presentation in both content and context).
  • Copies of cartoons will be made available for student use. Some of these will be reproduced on transparencies for projection by overhead projector, in order to facilitate class discussion, examination, and evaluation.
  • Students will be given two personal poems for reading and reflection:
    • “The Ballad of `Boss Tweed’, by G.A. Fuerst, (first published as part of "The American Way — Freedom of Choice." This personal publication (a joint teacher-student effort) was awarded the George Washington Honor Medal by the Freedoms Foundation of Valley Forge, Pa.). This poem utilizes the works of the great political cartoonist, Thomas Nast, relating and illustrating the infamy of Boss Bill Tweed of the notoriously corrupt political machine Tammany Hall of New York.
    • “A Matter of Fact (and/or Opinion) — A Political Fable”, by G.A. Fuerst. This poem discusses the role of political party symbols, favorite topics of political cartoonists, particularly during election campaigns, national conventions, party controversies and confrontations. The Republican “Elephant” and the Democratic “Donkey” are the inventions of the creative genius of cartoonist Thomas Nast. The poem shows them in a verbal altercation, and offers an alternative political symbol: The Camel (of Compromise).

The reading and discussion of this poem will be underscored with many cartoons depicting these traditional party symbols in various political contests. The latter has not been published to date. (Please note: Copies of these poems may be obtained upon request, and may be reproduced for classroom use only. Contact Gerhard Albert Fuerst, Kalamazoo Central High School, 2342 N. Drake Road, Kalamazoo MI 49006)).

Understanding Goals

  • Essential Questions
    • What is a cartoon?
    • What is the purpose of satire, parody, ridicule, caricature, cynicism, irony, puns, and political humor in general?
    • What is the role and function of cartooning in journalism?
    • What are the most common styles and techniques of the cartoonist to convey a message?
    • What is the purpose of exaggeration and distortion of features in a cartoon?
    • What is the specific purpose of the cartoonist’s art form?
    • What are the most favorite subjects and topics of political cartoonists?
    • What is the popular appeal of political cartoons?
  • Critical Engagement Questions
    • Can political cartoons become subjects of criticism and controversy?
    • Why do political cartoonists tend to focus on the negative?
    • Is the cartoonist’s purpose constructive criticism or merely derisive commentary?
    • Is the artist’s purpose to provoke, to anger, to annoy, or is it to stimulate public dialogue, and elicit public responses and reactions?
    • Who have been or are some of the most persuasive, creative, imaginative, and influential political cartoonists of the past and of today?
    • Are there repetitive and commonly recurring themes to which the cartoonist tend to return?
    • In what ways are political cartoons distinct and different from comics?
    • Are cartoonists merely pranksters, punsters, or practical jokers, or are they serious-minded sociopolitical, socioeconomic, social and cultural critics, and shrewd observers of history?
    • Do cartoons serve a useful purpose in the public discourse, and as such are they a constructive tool or destructive force in a democracy?
    • In what ways are political cartoons different and distinct from other forms of political humor?

Performance of Understanding, Rational, and Time Line

The purpose of the following activities is to focus on an examination of the art and nature of political cartoons, their role as a persuasive medium which is used to comment on and critique public affairs, public institutions, public issues, public policies, and public personalities (both nationally and internationally, locally, regionally, and at the state levels). The unit will stimulate critical thinking, discussion and debate, and reflective participation in written and oral form. Students will be encouraged to prepare a portfolio of political cartoons, with their personal commentary and interpretation for each. At least one cartoon is to be included for each day of this unit of study. Students will be encouraged to continue this project for the remainder of the course of study, in order to earn some extra credit.

Day 1

Activity 1

  • Students will view the political cartoons on bulletin board display throughout the classroom. They will be encouraged to mingle freely, and to discuss what they see, and to compare notes.
  • They will be asked to make connections between what is shown and actual historical events or situations that are being depicted by the cartoonist.
  • Students will be asked to record their observations on worksheets, to be shared with the class for discussion.

Activity 2

The teacher will project various political cartoons in transparency form with the use of an overhead projector, focusing on a variety of subjects, issues, and concerns, and featuring a variety of political cartoonists and their respective craft and style, such as: Thomas Nast, Herbert Block, Bill Mauldin, G.B. Trudeau, Pat Oliphant, et al.

Day 2

  • Viewing of Video: “Cartoons Go To War” (KPS Audio-Visual Catalogue #52245 VC 1997, 60 min.). Documentary about the animated films produced by the US government during World War II to train soldiers and to boost morale. Students will record their impressions and will share them with the class, keeping in mind some of the following questions:
    • Can inferences be made in general about the use of cartoons as political tools?
    • Can political cartoons be used as a form of political and ideological propaganda?
    • In what ways are cartoons used in campaigns, flattering one side or discrediting the opposition, etc.?
  • Alternative video: Show segments of political humorist Mark Russell’s programs reflecting in his style about the politics and the personalities in Washington, D.C., and beyond. Mark Russell is a cartoonist of sorts, drawing, sketching, and presenting his lines in colorful and entertaining language, and painting a picture of politics and its perpetrators, that is both funny and entertaining, but certainly not flattering. Mark Russell, a political prankster and punster, par excellence!

Day 3

  • Distribute the two poems (see above). Read them to the class and ask for student commentaries and personal reactions.
  • Distribute cartoons of Mr. Fuerst, drawn over a period several years by talented students and professional artists. Invite students to draw cartoons depicting themselves, the teacher, or others in familiar school situations. Students with artistic skills can be of assistance to those who are less experienced. Those students who are too shy or reluctant to participate may instead Select one of several cartoons in an attempt to copy it or to emulate the artist’s work, or to alter it at will, in order to create their own version of a given cartoon theme.
  • When analyzing a cartoon, students should keep in mind the following ideas and questions:
    • The topic, theme, and captions to the cartoon, and its historical connection.
    • The person, issue, or situation being illustrated, and its connection to current events.
    • Is the cartoon a realistic characterization, or a total fabrication and misrepresentation of alleged “facts”?
    • Is the artist depicting an assumed situation, a hypothetical construction, for purposes of general commentary on current events?
    • What does the artist attempt to communicate with his (her) art?
    • What does the cartoon mean to you personally?

Day 4

A local cartoon artist will be invited to demonstrate his (her) craft, and will draw cartoons of the students. Students can Select historical, political, social, or various cultural situations that they would like to see themselves in. Such as being:

  • president of the United States
  • a justice on the US Supreme Court
  • a state governor
  • Speaker of the House in a controversial Congressional debate
  • a general or soldier in combat (in the Bill Mauldin style)
  • an unemployed person looking for a job
  • a graduate of a university about to receive a diploma
  • an… (name your own choice, be creative, it is your turn! O)

Day 5

Students will share their portfolios of collected cartoons with interpretations. It should be interesting to find out if there are different interpretations to similar cartoons that were collected. Reminder: Students will be encouraged to make this a continuing project for the remainder of the course of study, in order to earn extra credit. As reflective practitioners, students will be asked to share their gained knowledge and experience from the week’s activities. Students will be encouraged to offer critical observations and suggestions to help make the preceding unit of study an even more useful, entertaining, and educationally rewarding experience for future classes.


Student performance will be evaluated on the basis of the following criteria:

  • Self-evaluation, self-analysis, self-awareness, self-criticism:
    • How actively did you participate?
    • What grade would you give yourself, if you were the teacher?
    • What have you gained from this unit of study?
    • Would you recommend this unit of study to others? State your reasons, pro or con!
  • Teacher evaluation (objective/subjective) based on actual observation of student performance.
    • General participation and involvement
    • Cartoon interpretations (both written and oral)
    • Cartoon portfolio with written commentaries, looking at both the quantity of included cartoons, and the quality of written interpretations.


  • Collection of cartoons for classroom display
  • Copies of cartoons for distribution to students
  • Transparencies of cartoons for projection
  • Overhead projector, wall screen
  • Video equipment, VCR & TV monitor, and video(s), or laser video projector
  • Collection of cartoon books written by the cartoonists, or about the artists and their craft.
  • Resource person, a professional cartoonist
  • Copies of the two poems (see above description, and included sample copies).


List of book and video resources available at the Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL), or through the Regional Educational Media Center 12 (REMC 12), of the Kalamazoo County Intermediate School District, as well as the library at Kalamazoo Central High School:

  • Allen, Oliver E., "The Tiger: The Rise And Fall of Tammany Hall," Addison-Wesley, 1993 Subjects: Tammany Hall — History, New York — Politics & government, political corruption KPL Call # 974.71 A428.1
  • Block, Herbert, "Herblock’s State of the Union," Simon and Schuster, New York, [ 1968], 1972 KPL Call # 741.2 B651.3
  • Block, Herbert, "Straight Herblock," Simon and Schuster, New York [1958], 1964 KPL Call # 741.2 B651.1
  • Block, Herbert, "Herblock On All Fronts," New American Library, Inc., New York, 1980 KPL Call # 741.2 B651.4
  • Connable, Alfred, "Tigers of Tammany: Nine Men Who Ran New York," Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1967. Subjects: Tammany Hall, New York — Politics & government. KPL Call # 329 C752
  • Feaver, William, and Ann Gould, editor, "Masters of Caricature from Hogarth and Gillroy to Scarfe and Levine," Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1981. Note particularly the section: “The Newspaper Cartoon”, pp. 95-130, as well as the section on Thomas Nast, "the father of American political cartooning”, pp. 93-94. KPL Call # 741.2 F288
  • Hess, Stephen, "The Ungentlemanly Art: A History of American Political Cartoons," Macmillan, New York, 1968. Subjects: Political cartoons. U.S. History, Humor. KPL Call # 973 H586
  • Hofmeckler, Ori, "Hofmeckler’s People," Holt Rinehart and Winston, New’York, 1982 KPL Call # 741.2 H714
  • Hoff, Syd, "Editorial Political Cartooning, From Earliest Times to the Present," With over 700 Examples from the Works of the World’s Greatest Cartoonists," Stravon Educational Press, New York, 1976. See particularly: Thomas Nast (1840-1902), pp. 68-82. KPL Call # 741.2 H698.1
  • Johnson, Gerald W. (Gerald White), "1890-1980, The Lines Are Drawn: American Life in the First World War as Reflected in the Pulitzer Prize Cartoons," Lippincott, [1958]. Content: U.S. — Hisory — Humor, World politics -Caricatures and cartoons. KPL Call # 973.91 J67.1
  • Keller, Morton, "The Art and Politics of Thomas Nast," Oxford University Press, New York, 1968. This book makes a fabulous companion to the assigned reading of the poem: "The Ballad of `Boss Tweed," by Gerhard A. Fuerst. See above description. KPL Call # 741.2 N269k
  • Luci-Smith, Edward, "The Art Of Caricature," Cornell University Press, Ithaca, N.Y., 1981. See Section: Contemporary Caricature (Social and Political Satire), pp. 99-109 KPL Call # 741.2 L937
  • Mauldin, Bill, "Up Front," Henry Holt and Co., New York, 1944 With cartoons from the war front, World War II.
  • Mauldin, Bill, "What’s Got Your Back Up?," Harper, 1996 Subjects: World politics Caricatures and cartoons. KPL Call # 741.2 M449
  • Mauldin, Bill, "I’ve Decided I Want My Seat Back," Harper and Row, 1965 Subjects: World politics — Caricatures and cartoons. KPL Call # 741.2 M449.
  • Mott, George Fox, editor, et al, "New Survey of Journalism," Barnes & Noble [1937],1958 Read particularly Chapter XXXII “The Press as a Political and Social Force”…The Political cartoon Plays a Part, pp. 271-272.
  • Oliphant, Pat, "Oliphant: An Informal Gathering," Simon and Schuster, New York, 1978 KPL Call # 741.2 047.1
  • Oliphant, Pat, "Four More Years," Simon and Schuster, New York, 1978
  • Trudeau, G. B., "The Doonsburv Chronicles," Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, New York [1970], 1975 (Also see:
  • Trudeau, G. B., "Doonsbury Deluxe," Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1987). KPL Call # 741.2 T866.12
  • Werner, Morris Robert, "Tammany Hall," Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1928 KPL Call # 363 W49
  • West, Richard Samuel, "Satire On Stone, The Political Cartoons of Joseph Keppler (1838-94)," University of Illinois Press, Urbana & Chicago, 1988. KPL Call # 741.2 K35w

Additional Sources:

  • Brooks, Charles, editor, "Best Editorial Cartoons Of The Year, 1998 Edition," Pelican Publication Company, Gretna, La., 1998 2.
  • Brooks, Charles, editor, "Best Editorial Cartoons Of The Year, 1999 Edition," Pelican Publication Company, Gretna, La., 1999
  • Oliphant, Pat, with Harry Katz, Oliphant’s Anthem, Pat Oliphant at the Library of Congress, Andrews McMeel Publishing, Kansas City (In cooperation with the Library of Congress), 1998.

Gerhard Albert Fuerst’s lesson plan, “Pictures Are Worth A Thousand Words — The Medium Is the Message: Political Cartoons” was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1999, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 56

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