Analyzing Political Cartoons -- Middle Grades

Home Education Unit Plans Understanding History Through Political Cartoons for Middle Grades Analyzing Political Cartoons -- Middle Grades

Analyzing Political Cartoons -- Middle Grades

Political cartoons are an excellent way to assess the popular culture of a particular time period. This lesson will combine history and language arts by asking students to examine various political cartoons in order to analyze point of view, symbolism, analogy, captions/labels, and irony, as is recommended in Pennsylvania’s Core Standards.

This lesson also will help students use their critical thinking skills to understand various historical events and, at the end of the lesson, students will have the opportunity to create their own cartoon. HSP has hundreds of political cartoons so if you find that you would like to use more, feel free to contact us for a full list of age appropriate cartoons for your classroom.

Essential Questions

What role does analysis have in historical construction?
Why is time and space important to the study of history?


Students will:

  • Learn how to analyze political cartoons.
  • Apply figures of speech such as Exaggeration, Irony, Analogy, and Symbolism.
  • Understand the author’s point of view.
  • Determine the importance of the historical moment.

Suggested Instructional Procedures

1. To begin this lesson, it is important to discuss each of the vocabulary for analysis. These vocabulary words are set up to help your students determine the author’s point of view. You can use the examples given or come up with your own as you see fit. If your students have never seen some of the vocabulary words, this will probably take a little longer, yet for students who are already familiar with the terms this will work as a refresher.

2. Next, go over with the students the vocabulary for historical context. These are people or terms that will show up in the political cartoons; therefore, they should at least know the bare minimum. This way, when they see the words or names, they have enough background knowledge to understand the picture. It will be best for each student to be given a handout with the historical content necessary so that he or she can refer to it while observing the cartoons.

3. Now, explore the Common Symbolism worksheet with students. This will help them grasp common themes that will pop up in political cartoons, such as donkeys representing the Democratic Party, elephants representing the Republican Party, and rats representing dirt or filth, etc.

4. Once the students have sufficient background knowledge, you can display the political cartoons. Have the students take out their Political Cartoons Analysis worksheet and fill out a row for each cartoon. Make sure to walk students through the first cartoon, pointing out how each of the vocabulary is used in the cartoon.

5. By cartoon two or three, begin to let students write out on their own the symbolism, irony, point of view, exaggeration, and analogy that they find in the cartoons. By the end, they should be able to work independently to figure out what the cartoon is depicting, using their vocabulary and common symbolism worksheets as a guide. After students finish their independent assessment of a couple cartoons, present the findings with the class to make sure students understood.

6. As a final objective, ask students, individually or in pairs, to create a cartoon of their own which expresses their point of view on a specific topic. This final objective can be historical, relating to the topics in the cartoons, or something from their everyday life. For example, ask them how they would use symbolism to show things in their everyday life, such as “Cleaning their room,”  “Lunchtime at school,” or “Snow Day,” just to give a couple of topic examples.  Also, you could ask them to create a cartoon that talks about a specific topic in history that was being discussed such as the Civil War or a Presidential election etc.


Vocabulary needed for analysis:
Symbolism: Something that stands for something else. For example, a heart can be a symbol for love.
Irony: Words that mean that opposite of their usual meaning, for Example, a bald man named “Harry.”
Analogy: Comparison between two different things that may have similar characteristics. For example, he is as loyal as a dog or she runs as fast as a cheetah.
Exaggeration: Making something seem more that it really is, for example, telling your parents that if you do not get the toy you want, it will be the ‘end of the world.’
Inference: Conclusions reached based upon reasoning and evidence.  For example, if I draw a picture of a bug with a big red X over it, based on the evidence from the picture you could infer that I do not like bugs.

Vocabulary for Historical Context:
Abraham Lincoln: 16th president of the United States (1861-65). He was the president during the Civil War and he signed the Emancipation Proclamation that emancipated the slaves.
Jefferson Davis: President of the South (confederacy) during the Civil War from 1861-65.
William Taft: President of the United States from 1909-1913. Known for being a very large man.
Woodrow Wilson: United States Democratic President after Taft (1913-1921). He is sometimes depicted as weak in political cartoons due to his views on maintaining neutrality rather than entering World War I.
George McClellan: A General for the North during the Civil War. He believed in preserving the union first.
Inauguration: A ceremony that begins a president’s term in office.
Secession: Withdrawing or removing yourself from membership, usually withdrawing from membership in a government. For example, the southern states seceded from the Union during the civil war to form the Confederate States of America.
Garfield: President of the United States (1881), yet only briefly because he was assassinated.