The COVID-19 pandemic is an ongoing crisis of historic proportions. Both within the United States and abroad, the pandemic has resulted in mass casualties, prompted responses of anxiety and hope, introduced novel changes into our daily lives, and intensified existing social challenges and inequities. Political cartoonists have chronicled the pandemic through their artwork from its global outbreak in early 2020 all the way through today. 

In this lesson, students analyze political cartoons that not only reflect the events of the times, but also offer interpretations and express strong opinions about pandemic events and experiences. Engaging with these cartoons can provide students with multiple avenues for exploring, remembering, and processing together what has been a tragic and life-altering event in the history of the twenty-first century.

Objectives

Students will:

  • Identify the techniques political cartoonists use to express opinions. 
  • Understand how COVID-19 affected—and continues to affect—aspects of daily life, from popular culture, to mental health, to major social and political issues.
  • Analyze experiences of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic over time—from its origins to summer 2021.
  • Identify and understand social, cultural, and political conflicts over pandemic issues, including vaccination, in the United States and around the world.
  • Identify and understand how the COVID-19 pandemic and government/societal responses to it have affected people differently according to factors such as race, ethnicity, social class, and nationality.

Resources

Processing the Pandemic: Analyzing Political Cartoons

Political Cartoons Slideshow

In the Classroom

1. Introduction

Ask students to reflect on the COVID-19 global pandemic. Prompt students with several of the following questions: What do they recall thinking about it when it first began? Originally, how did they feel about schools, restaurants, entertainment venues, workplaces, etc., closing down? Did those feelings change over time? What anxieties, fears, or worries have students experienced during the pandemic? What, if anything, gave them hope that things would get better or the pandemic would end? Can students identify any important political debates or social conflicts in the United States or from around the world over pandemic issues? What about the development of COVID-19 vaccines—how did students feel when they learned vaccines were available? What kind of political debates or social conflicts developed over the vaccine? Can students identify any international issues regarding the pandemic and access to vaccines?

Note: Reflecting on the COVID-19 pandemic may be challenging or upsetting for students who have experienced its devastating effects. It is important to be sensitive to your students and the ways in which this may be a difficult topic to discuss. Students should only share with the class what they are comfortable sharing.

Emphasize to students that political cartoonists from the United States and around the world have offered commentary and analysis on the global pandemic from the very beginning. Tell students that they are going to analyze some of these political cartoons in order to reflect on life during the pandemic and better understand some of the important issues, debates, and conflicts caused by the pandemic.

2. Analyzing Cartoons

Divide the class into eight groups (ideally of three or four students each, but adjust for your class size). Distribute the handout, “Processing the Pandemic: Analyzing Political Cartoons” to each student. Review the introduction with your class, emphasizing the techniques cartoonists use to convey opinions on political issues. Review the practice cartoon on page 2, and answer the questions on the handout with your students to model the assignment. What techniques are being used? What is the message of the cartoon? How is this cartoon related to what the class knows about the COVID-19 pandemic? What are different ways in which the cartoon might be interpreted?

The cartoons are divided into eight sets (Groups A-H) with two cartoons in each. Each set has a different theme—you may wish to tell each group of students what their theme is before they fill in the handout. Alternatively, you may ask students to try and identify their theme on their own as they answer the questions on the handout. The themes are: 

Group A: China and the Pandemic Outbreak
Group B: Pandemic Hardships
Group C: Daily Life during the Pandemic
Group D: Race and the Pandemic
Group E: Fear and Anxiety during the Pandemic
Group F: Hope and the COVID Vaccine
Group G: U.S. Politics and the Pandemic
Group H: World Politics and the Pandemic

Assign one set of cartoons to each of the eight groups of students. Ask students to answer the questions on the handout for their assigned cartoons. Tell students they should be prepared to share their cartoon analysis with the rest of the class.

3. Drawing Connections

Have each group present their political cartoons while projecting the images. If students were asked to identify the theme of their set of cartoons, have each group share what they thought it was. Encourage groups to compare and contrast cartoons and/or ask each other questions about their assigned cartoons. 

As a class, discuss how cartoonists provide perspective on social and political issues. Were students able to identify the message of each cartoon? If so, what were the cartoonists trying to express? If students struggled to identify the message of a particular cartoon, ask the rest of the class to offer their thoughts on what it may be. What techniques are used in each cartoon? Which techniques did students think most effectively got the message across? What do these cartoons say about how people in the United States and from around the world experienced the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Ask if students noticed connections between or among cartoons. Did multiple cartoons present a similar message? Did any cartoons disagree with each other or present different views from others? Did one cartoon build on another’s message in some way? Do any of the cartoons present a surprising or unexpected message? Do students agree or disagree with the message of any of the cartoons? Why? You may wish to focus on certain cartoons and ask students additional questions to explore more deeply certain pandemic-related issues.

4. Concluding Discussion

Ask students to recall the class discussion at the very beginning of the lesson. Which issues, debates, conflicts, emotions, experiences, and viewpoints that they discussed were also represented in the cartoons? Which ones were not covered? Ask students to reflect on the lesson itself. Did they learn anything new about the pandemic by analyzing the cartoons? What kinds of thoughts or emotions do they have after reflecting on all of these major pandemic events and issues? Ask students to imagine themselves ten years in the future: What do they think they will remember most about the pandemic? Do they think there will be any long-term political, social, or cultural effects of the pandemic still with us then? If so, what and why?

Extra Challenges

1. Annotate Additional Cartoons

Divide the class into pairs. Share the two following political cartoon collective websites with students: www.cartoonistgroup.com and www.politicalcartoons.com. Tell students to use the search functions on the websites to find two additional cartoons that either deal with pandemic topics not covered in the lesson or provide opposing messages to one or more of the cartoons in the lesson. Provide guidance to students on best practices for searching website archives by theme or topic. Have students print out their cartoons. Then, drawing from the political cartoon analysis techniques and questions they used in the lesson, tell students to “annotate” their cartoons by using arrows, lines, circles, etc., and text boxes in which they point out the cartoonists’ techniques and messages. Once completed, hang the cartoons on the classroom walls and instruct students to move around the room and identify annotated cartoons that they found particularly interesting or had questions about. Facilitate a class discussion in which pairs of students can discuss their annotated cartoons and ask questions about other pairs’ annotated cartoons. (Note: If students have access to the technology to do so, you may have them download and annotate the images on their computers/tablets. Then, collate the annotated political cartoons into a slideshow and share it with students or project it on the board at the front of the class, giving student pairs the opportunity to discuss their annotated cartoons and ask questions about other pairs’ annotated cartoons.)

2. Draw Your Own Cartoon

Assign students as individuals or in pairs to draw their own political cartoon on a pandemic topic. Tell students they can choose a topic that is personally relevant or a political, cultural, or social topic that they find particularly significant. Provide students with paper or poster board and colored pencils or markers (you may also consider partnering with your school’s art teacher to expand students’ access to art materials and provide additional art education). Challenge students to incorporate several of the political cartoonists’ techniques discussed earlier in the lesson into their own cartoons. Once completed, hang students’ cartoons on the classroom walls and instruct students to move around the room and identify cartoons that they found particularly interesting or had questions about. Facilitate a class discussion in which students can discuss their political cartoons and ask questions about other students’ cartoons. You may wish to coordinate with school publications (such as student newspapers or the school yearbook) to publish students’ pandemic-related cartoons.

Thank you to Michael Dorney for his work in developing this lesson.

Image: Back to School by Sean Delonas, CagleCartoons.com

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