Lesson Plans

History of Editorial Cartoons/Background Knowledge

The first editorial cartoon was drawn by Benjamin Franklin, and appeared in the Pennsylvania Gazette on May 9, 1754. (Project “Join or Die” cartoon on screen).

Lead students in a brief discussion of what the cartoon might mean.

Explain that Franklin was concerned about France and Great Britain’s arguments about their landholdings in the Americas. Franklin saw the colonies as dangerously fragmented, and hoped, with the cartoon and an article, to convince colonists they would have great power if they united.

“The “Join or Die” snake does not fit any standard definition of a map. But many basic elements of a map arepresent. Perhaps the image has been best described at a “cartographic caricature,” or a map generalizing and exaggerating the American colonies’ most recognizable features—namely their locations and coastlines. The colonies are represented in geographic order, with the New England colonies at the head of the snake and South Carolina at its tail. [Note: The New England colonies are not listed individually and Georgia, oddly, does not appear at all.] The undulations of the snake’s body broadly suggest the curves of the North American east coast.”

—Source: Misty Belyeu, elementary school teacher, Auburn, Alabama; 

How It’s Done

Explain to students that editorial cartoons throughout history have made use of similar techniques to get their points across. Among them are:

  • Symbolism: use of an object to stand for an idea
  • Caricature: exaggeration of a physical feature
  • Captioning and labels: for clarity and emphasis
  • Analogy: comparison of 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 for effect
  • Exaggeration: overstating or magnifying a problem.

—Source: Steven Janover

Show any current political cartoon, and ask students to identify the elements above, and lead them in a discussion about each.

Discuss how editorial cartoons are different from other cartoons in the paper (usually come about because of an issue in the news; more for information than entertainment), and how they’re different from news articles (include a clear bias, as opposed to news articles, which should be entirely objective). While an article is intended to inform, the author’s purpose with an editorial cartoon is to influence opinion.

Model for them use of the Analyzing a Cartoon Worksheet.

To get them warmed up, if a computer is available, send students to a site such as American Association of Editorial Cartoonists, which has links to daily cartoons, cartoonists index, and cartoons sorted by topic, or have them search for cartoons on their own: Send students on a “cartoon webquest,” where they find five cartoons, and write down the URL of the cartoon, the cartoonist who created it, the topic, and a brief description of the cartoon. Other websites include: The Cartoonists Group, Go Comics, Daily Kos, Cagle Cartoons.

Introduction to Herb Block

Show students the video of Herb Block to introduce them to the man whose work they’ll be studying.

Additional Lesson Plans:

Check out our How to Analyze an Editorial Cartoon page 

20th-Century Political Cartoons at the Library of Congress (Online Office Hours) - Herblock cartoons show American History for over seven decades

Herblock Exhibitions - Education, Democracy, Civil Rights, Environment and the Presidency

AAEC's Cartoons for the Classroom - (new lessons each week based on current events)

PBS' Reading Political Cartoons

Teaching Tolerance - Using Editorial Cartoons to Teach Social Justice

The Opper Project (The Ohio State University) - Using Editorial Cartoons to Teach History

Library of Congress - using a Herblock Cartoon

Democrat and the Chronicle: Create an Editorial Cartoon

The Kennedy Center's ArtsEdge

Order Herblock's Editorial Cartoon Exhibitions DVD - just call our office at 202-223-8801

The DVD includes 5 lesson plans for teaching the topics that reflect Herb Block's passions - Education, Democracy, Civil Rights, the Presidency and Environment. The disk presents five exhibitions which bring to life many famous Herblock cartoons that punctuate American history from 1929 to the millennium. The lesson plans meet Language Arts standards from the National Council of Teachers of English and the National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies. (Lesson plans aligning with the Common Core should be available by 2015.)