Getting the Point:
Studying Editorial Cartoons in the Third Grade

Melinda Schoenfeldt

Editorial cartoons are a rich source of commentary about life in America and the world.1 Editorial cartoonists often try to make us laugh about serious problems or dangers in our world, and a bit of laughter sometimes helps us confront a tough issue. Cartoonists use exaggeration and caricature to attract our attention. A humorous drawing can pull in even the most reluctant reader. The limited use of words in editorial cartoons enables even beginning readers to get a handle on complex ideas and situations.

Editorial cartoons run the gamut from hilarity to irony to outrage. Some use gentle humor, while many use biting satire. One memorable editorial cartoon pictured the statue of Lincoln weeping in the Lincoln Memorial after the assassination of President John Kennedy, Jr. But an editorial cartoon does not have to be an artistic masterpiece: if it draws our attention, challenges us to figure out its meaning, or causes us to nod in agreement or frown in disagreement—then it has, in some measure, “worked.”

Curriculum Matters

Editorial cartoons are ideal for introducing current events to children and for allowing children to express their opinions. “Keeping informed on issues that affect society” and “interpreting social and political messages of cartoons” are essential social studies skills. Teachers should provide learning opportunities that are meaningful, interdisciplinary, value-based, challenging, and active.2 Editorial cartoons can be used to meet all of these criteria.

> Meaningful—To emphasize meaningful content, classroom interaction should lead to thoughtful discussion of major issues. Meaningful content in the social studies promotes deeper student understanding of civic roles and responsibilities. Editorial cartoons, with their visual appeal and limited yet powerful use of words, can provide an opening for examining important issues. It is often said that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Editorial cartoons can be used to spark discussion of an important issue even when students are reluctant, at first, to read (or listen to) a lengthy news article on the topic.

> Interdisciplinary—Elementary students can explore social issues as part of a social studies lesson and then write about those issues in language arts class. Once students have clarified their views of a controversial issue through writing, they can draw editorial cartoons in art class. In a third grade class, teachers discussed television advertisements aimed at discouraging children from using drugs. One student was able to express her fear that her peers, age ten, might not be able to resist cigarettes, even though younger children (depicted as three-year-olds in her cartoon above) could resist.

> Value-based—Good social studies teachers try to present controversial topics in a balanced way, helping students become aware of values underlying a topic and develop an awareness of their own values. Students can learn to think critically about issues by looking at several editorial cartoons representing differing viewpoints. Or a teacher could present only one viewpoint and ask students to draw an editorial cartoon that expresses an alternative position on the topic.

Students should be helped to develop well-reasoned positions consistent with their own values and those of a democratic society. Rather than trying to shy away from sensitive issues, social studies activities can help students examine controversial topics logically, as concerned citizens. Students can be encouraged to bring reason to emotionally charged issues. For example, much has been written about the effect of violence in the media on children’s behavior. The next two cartoons (p. 14, top) express how two students view that issue.

> Challenging Teachers must make sure that the content of any lesson is developmentally appropriate. They can urge students to use prior knowledge and experience to help them understand the point of a cartoon. As cartoonist Roy Paul states, “The strength of an editorial cartoon lies in its analogy. The best of the editorial cartoonists do not depict a problem in literal terms. They liken it to something else and invite the reader to stretch his imagination.”3 Thus, the most interesting cartoons are open to different interpretations and invite discussion.

> Active—One way to keep social studies classes interesting, and thereby keep students actively engaged, is to use a variety of materials and to keep these updated. A textbook cannot do this; it will be one to two years out of date before it is even published.4üTeachers can find numerous cartoons that address topics of current concern in local newspapers and weekly news magazines. Local newspapers are especially useful in finding commentary on issues that directly affect the daily lives of the students and their families.

Active learning also involves construction of meaning on the part of the students. Rather than being passive learners, students become active participants in the learning process. Thoughtful discussion and debate, sparked by an editorial cartoon, can help students make sense of what they are learning by developing a network of connections that tie the new context to preexisting knowledge, beliefs, and experiences. Encouraging students to draw their own cartoons can add to their active participation. Students in third grade are not too young to draw their own cartoons. The original cartoons in this article have all been drawn by third graders.


A “Cartoon Assignment”

Like any good lesson, those that use editorial cartoons must be carefully planned. Teachers can select cartoons that are developmentally appropriate for their class’s grade level. Editorial cartoons can be incorporated into a social studies classroom in one of three ways: (1) in addition to the
regular social studies curriculum, (2) as a supplement integrated with the curriculum, or (3) as a basis for developing a social studies unit.

Many teachers discuss current events once a week using commercially available products such as Weekly Reader, Time for Kids, or NewsCurrents. Introducing editorial cartoons into this weekly discussion is fairly easy because many of these publications contain cartoons. Additional cartoons can be shared if one makes transparencies and projects them. Students can also be encouraged to bring in or draw their own editorial cartoons for display on a bulletin board. This technique is most effective when students are allowed to choose the topic and if the topic from one assignment to another is different.

If current events are discussed only once a week, however, students can get the mistaken idea that being an informed citizen is not as important as math or reading, because those subjects are studied every day. One way to correct this misconception is to supplement every social studies unit with appropriate editorial cartoons. Editorial cartoons have been a part of American history since before Ben Franklin’s famous “Don’t Tread on Me” snake cartoon of 1754, and school media specialists can help teachers find many good examples. Providing students with the opportunity to draw their own editorial cartoons about political or social concerns of the era or topic being studied can add an active learning component to most any unit of study.

One could design entire social studies units of study around issues presented in editorial cartoons. Topics could include immigration, contemporary explorers, technology, and the interdependence of nations. Such units can be difficult to plan, however, because it is often challenging to find enough sources of reliable information, although the Internet is making this easier in some respects. These teacher-developed units could form an entire social studies curriculum or, what is more likely, be used be&Mac253;ween district-mandated units of study. Units developed around current events and editorial cartoons can be highly motivating because they deal with issues of current interest. They can help students make sense of what they see and hear in the media and make learning relevant.


Critical Reading and Laughing

Once teachers have decided how they plan to integrate editorial cartoons into their social studies classes, it is important to plan to teach students how to interpret the cartoons. Critical “cartoon reading skills” include being able to

> Distinguish between editorial cartoons and comic strips. Is the purpose of the drawing just to make people laugh, or is it also to comment about society or politics? What is the “editorial page” of a newspaper? Can students find a “comic strip” in today’s “funny pages” that might also be called a political cartoon?

> Distinguish between fact and opinion. Is the drawing an attempt to reproduce a specific person or event (like a photograph would), or did the author use a lot of imagination?

> Recognize techniques used by the cartoonist. Caricature and exaggeration help the cartoonist tell a story and state an opinion about a current event. Can students identify specific things in a drawing that were obviously exaggerated by the artist? Why would the artist have done this?

> Identify common symbols. Can students list some symbols that appear in their collection of clipped cartoons? (For example, Uncle Sam or the donkey and elephant.)

> Understand analogy. For example, why do cartoonists sometimes depict people as animals? What animal would students use to represent someone they admired? Someone they did not like? What analogies do cartoonists use when making a point about (for example) how money is being spent by the government? About a candidate who is running for office?



üditorial cartoons can also be used as a form of authentic assessment. Student-drawn cartoons allow teachers a method of evaluating the depth of each student’s understanding. Drawing their own cartoons forces students to synthesize information, form an opinion, and decide how to express it. It also gives students a glimpse at how difficult it can be to invent a simple, clear picture that gives a message that the reader can figure out. (Some cartoonists create a finished drawing five days a week!) Teachers should emphasize that while neatness aids understanding, the ideas presented in a student’s drawing are more important than artistic ability. In one such assignment, a student depicted a girl imitating what she sees on television (at left).



Editorial cartoons are an entertaining way to spark student interest in current social and political issues. Parker and Jarolimek point to the importance of teaching current topics to students: “If this nation expects its adults to have an abiding interest in new and current developments and have a desire to keep informed, the ground-work for these attitudes, interests, and skills must be laid in the elementary school.”5

Even young children are aware of problems and divisions in the world around them. It is human nature for adults to try to shield them from unpleasantness, but exemplary social studies teachers can help students examine social and political issues thoughtfully. Concerning the benefit of allowing even young students the opportunity to express themselves through editorial cartoons, I leave the last words to a third-grade student.



1. Ben A. Smith, Social Studies Teacher’s Companion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997).

2. National Council for the Social Studies, Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (Washington, DC: NCSS, 1994).

3. Jonathan Burack, The Language of Editorial Cartoons (Madison, WI: Knowledge Unlimited, 1992).

4. Murry R. Nelson, Children and Social Studies: Creative Teaching in the Elementary Classroom (Fort Worth, TX: Harcourt Brace, 1998).

5. W. C. Parker and J. Jarolimek, Social Studies in Elementary Education (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice-Hall,1997).

6. From Zino Press Children’s Books, Editorial Cartoons by Kids 1998 (Madison, WI: Zino Press, 1998). Illustration used by permission.


About the Author

Melinda Schoenfeldt is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana.