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Using Political Cartoons in the Classroom

Posted by Lindsay Gibson
15 March 2013 - 8:37am

This blog entry is dedicated to the "Great Man of Canadian History Teaching" Mr. Charles Hou, who is a great inspiration to all Canadian history teachers who aim to engage their students in the study of Canadian history by "doing history." Whether it was week-long hikes along fur brigade trails, creating and organizing the Begbie Canadian History Contest, conducting mock trials and costumed debates at the B.C. Legislative buildings, Charles made history come alive for students in a way that it has always has for him. Despite the numerous teaching awards, including the Hilroy National Award for Great Merit in 1986, and the Governor General's Award for Excellence in the Teaching of Canadian History in 1996, Charles' legacy to the teaching of Canadian history will always be political cartoons. 

Early in his career Charles become convinced of the power of Canadian political cartoons as a powerful vehicle for captivating students' interest and understanding of Canadian history. He and his wife Cynthia spent decades travelling across Canada and the United States visiting the archives of hundreds of museums, newspapers and magazines in order to build the most comprehensive collection of political cartoons about the important people, events and issues in Canadian history.

Why use political cartoons?

History educators have long trumpeted the value of using primary sources to teach history. But of all of the different types of primary sources available, why use political cartoons?

1.      Political cartoons are one of the most interesting types of primary sources available for students to work with.

2.      Political cartoons portray opinions about complicated and sophisticated issues, events and people in a medium that is accessible and understandable to students.

3.      Analyzing and decoding political cartoons helps students develop important critical and creative thinking competencies.

4.      Political cartoons provide a fascinating look at the different views and attitudes that Canadians had about important people, events and issues in the past.

5.      Political cartoons are an excellent alternative to textual sources for students who are struggling readers.

6.      Political cartoons can help students develop visual literacy competencies that have "real-world" applications because they are still a relevant part of newspapers and magazines today.

Where to find political cartoons?

Here are a few of the most helpful collections of political cartoons:


1.     Great Canadian Political Cartoons, Volume I: 1820-1914, Volume II: 1915-1945, Volume III: 1946-1982

These three books written by Charles and Cynthia Hou should be required for every Canadian history teacher. Each book contains 300-350 political cartoons that focus on a variety of people, events and issues. Teachers searching for a cartoon (or cartoons) about a particular event, person or issue will find the subject index at the back of each book very helpful. These books are available for purchase through The Critical Thinking Consortium's website.

2.      Canadian History Test Bank

This CD test bank created by Charles Hou is a collection of questions from the last fifteen years of the Begbie Canadian History Contest. The test bank includes: 450 multiple choice questions that focus on political cartoons, photographs, posters and other primary sources from 1850 to present, 14 short essay questions that compare two or more primary sources, 15 extended essay questions that require students to analyze multiple primary source documents about controversial issues and then write a document-based written response. In order to be helpful for teachers it also includes an alphabetical list of search terms and an answer key for the multiple choice and essay questions. This test bank is available for purchase through  The Critical Thinking Consortium's website

3.      Canadian Confederation Political Cartoons

This collection of political cartoons from Library and Archives Canada focuses on various aspects of Confederation and is free to access.

4.      British Cartoon Archive

The British Cartoon Archive at the University of Kent hosts a computer database for searching more than 150,000 British editorial, socio-political, and pocket cartoons from Britain's most renowned cartoonists. Images dating back to 1904 can be searched online by cartoonist, publication, date, name or subject. Teachers can register online and create web groups of cartoons to be used as a teaching aid, or an online exhibition that can be shared with others or saved as a Powerpoint or Microsoft Word document, which can be downloaded from your page

5.      Daryl Cagle's "The Cagle Post" Cartoons and commentary

Current American political cartoons from some of their most celebrated cartoonists. Also includes cartoon year in review for every year from 2002-2012.

6.      Dr. Seuss's World War II Political Cartoons

This online collection of nearly 400 political cartoons was drawn by Seuss between January 1941 and January 1943 where he worked as an editorial cartoonist for the New York City daily newspaper.

How do you teach students to decode, interpret and analyze political cartoons?

 For a comprehensive guide on teaching students how to decode a political cartoon "The Art of Decoding Political Cartoons: A Teacher's Guide" by Charles Hou is a great place to start. Designed to accompany the Hou’s three collections of Canadian political cartoons, this guide explains how to incorporate primary historical sources into social studies and history programs. The book contains detailed instructions and activities for teaching students how to place political cartoons in historical context, identify and analyze the devices present in cartoons, identify the cartoonist's point of view, and finally interpreting the cartoonist's message.  The critical thinking skills students need to appreciate and understand cartoons, as well as visual and literary devices used are described.


1.      Establish the historical context: Before analyzing a political cartoon students will need knowledge of the time period when the cartoon was created as well as knowledge of the context of the cartoon and the events featured in the cartoon.


Activities: If students have previously studied the topic or time period they will already know something about the historical context and can be expected to generate the historical context on their own or in small groups. If they have not studied the topic previously, invite students to generate questions about the topic and then research the answers to the question in a textbook or online. Alternatively, teachers can provide students with the historical context to the time period via prepared notes, video or lecture before analyzing the cartoon.


2.      Identifying cartoonist's techniques: Although political cartoons are a source of valuable historical insight, they need to be “read” in order to be understood. Explain that cartoonists use certain techniques to communicate their message just like authors use writing techniques. These techniques include:

·         captioning: a sentence or phrase that is the title for the cartoon.

·         labelling: words in the drawing to identify people, ideas, or objects.

·         relative size: figures are drawn much larger or smaller than others to make a point or statement.

·         shading (light and dark): use of white space and dark shading to create an effect.

·         composition: the arrangement or location of figures or objects in the cartoon

·         signs and symbolism: a sign such as a facial expression, gesture, or body position, and symbols, an object used to represent something else

·         caricature: a distorted, oversimplified, or exaggerated stereotype used to represent something else.


Activities: Complete the following activities to teach students about the techniques of a cartoonist:

·         Invite students to look at a variety of political cartoons and identify one example of each of the techniques described in the cartoons.

·         Invite students to look at photographs of past Canadian Prime Ministers and identify which physical features of each of them would most likely be caricatured by cartoonists.

·         Develop class criteria for an effective political cartoon and then analyze the use of the techniques in a political cartoon or political cartoons.

·         Present students with five political cartoons dealing with one event, person or issue. Ask students which cartoon best exemplifies the techniques of good political cartooning and to explain why they chose it.

·         Identify stereotypes/symbols/signs portrayed in a cartoon.

·         Create a powerful cartoon about a topic that you are studying using one or several of the techniques of a cartoonist.

·         Remove the titles, labels and dialogue from each cartoon. Ask the students to make up plausible titles, labels and dialogue.


The Critical Thinking Consortium (TC2) has created a modular-based collection called Tools for Thought that is designed to help teachers embed the critical thinking tools that form the basis of the TC² model of critical thinking into every lesson. One of the tools "Analyze a cartoon" helps students analyze different cartooning techniques. Students are asked to select a cartoon to study; give examples of the relevant techniques found in the cartoon; and make inferences on why the cartoon draws attention to that particular feature. Students develop an understanding of the importance of specific cartooning techniques in delivering authors' messages and perspectives.



3.      Determining the cartoonist's point of view: After considering the techniques that cartoonists use to create an effective political cartoon, it is important that students can identify a cartoonist's point of view in each political cartoon that they analyze.


Activities: Present students with one or multiple cartoons and invite them to make accurate and relevant observations and draw plausible conclusions about the author’s background, point of view and message that they are trying to convey about the historical person, topic or issue in the cartoon. Students might also want to consider how the techniques were used to help convey that message.


4.      Interpreting the cartoon: After students have proven that they can establish the historical context, identify cartoonists' techniques, and determine a cartoonist's point of view, students should be able to summarize the cartoonist's main message and support their interpretation by referring to evidence located in the cartoon. 


·         Present students with a political cartoon on an event they have been studying or will be studying. Ask them to infer the meaning of a cartoon using a decoding template (for example, the Analyzing a Cartoon activity sheet).

·         Present students with multiple political cartoons about an event, person or issue  that they have been studying, or will be studying. Ask students to determine what Canadians' attitudes towards the event, person or issue were after considering the different cartoons.

·         Present students with a cartoon from a particular point of view. Invite students to draw (or describe what they would draw) if they were going to create a political cartoon from a different point of view. They should use the various techniques of a cartoonist when creating the cartoon.  


How do you use political cartoons in your history classroom/museum lesson?