Lisa M. Boehm, Jacqueline Rae Ziven, and Melinda Schoenfeldt
As preservice teachers, two of us (LMB and JRZ) recently taught a social studies unit of study with the use of editorial cartoons in third grade classes at Grissom Elementary School in Muncie, Indiana. This urban school serves a neighborhood in a community with many families of lower socioeconomic status and with an approximate population of 80,000.
Forming an Opinion
When do we get to start drawing cartoons? Countless students asked this question as soon as we explained that the new social studies unit would involve cartoons. But our first topic was the difference between fact and opinion. Students found examples of each in newspapers. Students then learned that everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion. We can respect the right of another person to voice an opinion, even if it differs from ours.
When the children had satisfactorily established the difference between facts and opinions, they looked at several transparencies of cartoons and comic strips such as Dennis the Menace, Beetle Bailey, and Family Circus. We explained that cartoons generally contain a single panel with words appearing in a caption, while comics have several panels and usually contain words in dialogue bubbles.
Next, the students took a look at some editorial cartoons, some taken from newspapers and others designed by children. The third graders were impressed by the artwork and the messages being expressed in the cartoons. They enjoyed unlocking the meaning of each cartoon. The class as a whole identified the issues portrayed in the selected cartoons and then listed some current events they felt were important to them. As a class, we narrowed the list down to two issues and wrote them out in question form:
> Does violence on television affect children?
> Do anti-drug commercials affect student behavior?
Students silently collected their thoughts on these two questions and then expressed their opinions to the rest of the class. Quite a debate ensued! Because we had already discussed the principle that each person is entitled to his or her own opinion, students were able to respect each other and to listen to diverse comments without bad feelings arising.
Putting it on Paper
The next assignment was for students to write down their opinion in a short paragraph and then narrow those thoughts down to one or two lines. Finally, the students were allowed to draw a draft cartoon. Expressing their opinions in picture form was a real challenge. Because of this difficulty, we allowed them to put a one- or two-sentence caption underneath so they could better express what they wanted to say. The students worked through the writing and drawing process, edited their own work, and finally created an original editorial cartoon without any caption (although dialog bubbles and labels within the drawing were allowed).
Considering the Results
Students were motivated to read the sample cartoons, both those from newspapers and those drawn by themselves and the other children. Cartoons are fairly easy to read, and the limited number of words was less threatening than large amounts of text to the less accomplished readers. It just happened that the editorial cartoons from the newspapers were on general topics, so the students were able to read and comprehend the messages conveyed.
One of the most important strengths of this social studies unit is that the children actually got to express their own opinions. One child said, No one has ever asked me what I thought before. By focusing on these top two questions, students got a chance to reflect on current events that are affecting them and children just like them across the country. At first, most of the children sat and waited for us, the teachers, to tell them what they should think, or at least what was a correct answer. Once they realized that they were allowed to come up with their own thoughts, their eyes sparkled and the discussion really began.
Another strength of this unit is that it is interdisciplinary. The students used the writing process to reinforce the social studies content. They also had the opportunity to work on their handwriting skills in a meaningful way. As the children found out, trying to express yourself in writing is a lot harder than just talking. This was especially true for these very verbal third graders, who are used to expressing themselves by speaking. Finally, although students would usually consider drawing a picture to be an easier activity than writing, trying to create a cartoon (in one frame) from a thought-out, written opinion was no easy assignment. The students were especially excited about getting to draw their own cartoons. They asked for extra paper at the end of the day so they could practice at home. (Students were eager to do some homework!)
Reading, interpreting, and drawing cartoons is a refreshing alternative to worksheets, workbooks, and textbooks for teachers and students alike. In this social studies unit, students enjoyed learning in a different, more active way. They had to look carefully at the materials we used, listen carefully to the teachers and their peers, and then apply their knowledge and skills to create something new. We had challenged them to think critically.
About the Authors
Lisa Boehm and Jacqueline Ziven are seniors at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, and are completing their preservice teaching semester. Melinda Schoenfeldt is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary Education at Ball State University.