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How Have Political Cartoons on U.S. Presidents Shaped American Opinion?


Kevin Wittman of Sycamore High School in Cincinnati.

Kevin Wittman
Sycamore High School
Cincinnati, Ohio

Title: How Have Political Cartoons on U.S. Presidents Shaped American Opinion?

Description of School and Students

This curriculum will be taught to American History classes. This is typically a junior level course taught over four quarters. The school is an affluent suburban district with one large high school serving roughly 2,200 students, grades 9-12.

Generative Topic

Political cartoons about U.S. presidents

Generative Objects

A collection of political cartoons from local papers, "The Presidency in Cartoons" (Mind Sparks series), "Presidential Anecdotes" (book with stories about U.S. presidents), comic strips from local paper

Understanding Goals

  • What is a political cartoon and how do they differ from comics?
  • What are the elements of political cartoons?
  • What can political cartoons teach use about the presidents of the U.S.?
  • What are the media trying to communicate by using political cartoon (What is the message)?
  • How has the nature of political cartoons change in recent decades?
  • Are political cartoons persuasive?

Performances of Understanding, Rationale, and Time Line

  • Introducing Students to Political Cartoons
    • This unit can be used towards the beginning of the year, probably introduced during study of the Jefferson administration. Begin by having the class look at several different comic strips and political cartoons. Have students try to list the differences between what a political cartoon is versus what a comic strip is. Focus their attention on these key elements to a political cartoon:
      • Use of exaggerated features and or physical characteristics
      • use of symbols or other recognizable icons
      • the use of satire
      • the presence of an opinion or message by the author.


    Share with the class several political cartoons. Do these examples have the same elements to them? What makes these political cartoons and not comic strips?

    • Using the Mind Sparks series, "The Presidency in Cartoons Booklet I," share with the class political cartoons of the first two presidents of the United States. Assign the students to work on the discussion questions given by the series during the remained of the period. Homework is to finish the assignment and bring in an example of a political cartoon and a comic strip for tomorrow’s lesson.
  • Political Cartoons versus Comic Strips
    • Begin the class by having the students read their discussion question answers. Ask the students to apply the previous day’s criteria for political cartoons. Do the examples meet the criteria? Have students give evidence if their answer is yes.
    • Next, have students get into small groups and examine the political cartoons they brought in for homework. Are they examples of political cartoons or comic strips? Ask them to give the criteria and evidence to support their opinion. Make sure they can tell the class what is and is not a political cartoon. Conclude class with the students writing a reflective journal on what messages they feel the author of the political cartoon are conveying to them and are political cartoons persuasive.
  • The Media’s Message in Political Cartoons
    • Looking over their reflection of the previous day, the class will brainstorm a list of possible messages that are conveyed to the reader through their political cartoons. Ask the class to discuss the following issues:
      • What is the intention of these messages?
      • Does the author mean to be a watchdog of the government?
      • What can we as voters learn from the political cartoons on our presidents?
    • Have the class get out the examples of political cartoons on Thomas Jefferson, ask them the same questions regarding these cartoons.
    • Looking at both historic cartoons and today’s cartoons, ask the class what issues are focused on. Do modern cartoons involve more personal information about the president or politicians? Are today’s political cartoons more cynical? Are they more persuasive? Why or why not?
    • Do political cartoons help to fuel the growth in mistrust and loss of confidence in government? Have the students speculate as to what harm political cartoons could have on their reader. Are they a fair representation of the issues? Ask the students what the cartoons teach us about the presidencies. Are they harmful to the democratic process? What could be added or taken from the cartoon to change the message? Are all political cartoons that use satire necessarily harmful? Why or why not? Could political cartoons manipulate with their powers of persuasion?

Assessment

  • Using anecdotes from "Presidential Anecdotes," have the students create their own political cartoons based on the humorous stories. Drawing will not be assessed just the ability to include the elements of political cartoons in their projects. Share with the class. The class will use the criteria and judge each other’s work. Ask the students to write and share their answers to the following questions:
    • What does the cartoon teach us about the president they represent?
    • Can they persuade voters into voting a certain way?
    • Could this power of persuasion be harmful to the democratic process?
    • What could be added or taken from the cartoon to change the message?
    • Are all political cartoons that use satire necessarily harmful? Why or why not?
    • As the receivers of the messages from political cartoons, what could we do to defuse their potential power?
  • Over the course of a week collect 5 to 8 political cartoons and write an analysis of them. Answer the following questions:
    • Identify the elements of political cartoons in the collection.
    • What information do they convey to the reader?
    • Are the messages harmful to the democratic process because of being negatively persuasive, or are they helpful to the democratic process in that they provide information that would otherwise be unknown?
    • What issues do the political cartoons target? i.e. personal issues, foreign policy.
  • Students write a reflective journal on the topic of political cartoons. Are they powerful? Do they help or hinder the democratic process? Should all aspects of a public figure’s life be subject to political cartoons?

Resources

  • Paul Boller, "Presidential Anecdotes" (New York: Penguin Books) 1981.
  • MindSparks, "The Presidency in Cartoons Booklet 1" 1789-1877 (U.S.A.: Highsmith Inc.) 1997.

Kevin Wittman’s lesson plan, "How Have Political Cartoons on U.S. Presidents Shaped American Opinion" was published in The Media and Democracy Curriculum Compendium 1998, Barrett and Greyser editors, published by Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass., p. 146.



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