5 Constructive Ways to Approach Politics in the Classroom
We’re in This Together
Politics can be a prickly subject for anyone to tackle, let alone a group of young students. We see it all the time; emotions flare up, words get misconstrued, things can go south fast. In today’s climate, we have to be particularly careful how we frame these discussions, maintaining an objective view while respecting all perspectives on a given topic.
A Creative Solution: Comics
With their utilization of storytelling and satire, comics are an engaging medium in which ideas can be taught, opinions can be shared, and constructive conversations can bloom. They’re an inherently clever medium, with a proud tradition of artistic, eye-opening stories and images that have endured for a long time.
Consider incorporating the kinds of comics below into your lesson plans, or personalize your assignments by having your students create their own to kick off or enhance discussion.
[Traditional] Political Cartoons
Of course, political cartoons are a mainstay of public discourse over current topics. Cartoonists have been drawing these for ages, and for good reason: Sharing these comics is a powerful way of not only drawing attention to a political issue, but persuading an audience to support a particular position.
- In 1754, Benjamin Franklin published his famous “Join, or Die” image. The political cartoon imagines the American colonies as a snake divided into segments, making the point that those regions needed to come together in order to win the French and Indian War. This cartoon became so popular, it was used throughout American history to represent unity and resistance.
- “The Plumb-pudding in danger or, State epicures taking un petit souper” was a political cartoon drawn by James Gillray during the Napoleonic Wars. In it, the empires of Britain and France (depicted as Prime Minister William Pitt and Napoleon Bonaparte, respectively) are carving up portions of the world for their own benefit. The comic takes the view that the countries could not peacefully co-exist then without fighting. He was correct. Today, Gilroy’s work is regarded as some of the most influential cartoons of all time.
Alternate-History Comics and Allegories
Thoughtful, astute writers have utilized popular genres of comics, such as superhero stories, to express their opinions and raise awareness of social issues. Read your comics carefully; a seemingly conventional adventure could represent something much more timely!
- In 1986, renowned comic writer Alan Moore told the story of a team of superheroes whose actions have affected real-world events. Moore cast a light on Cold War era themes such as personal motivation, power, and guilt — themes which remain quite relevant to this day. This limited series was called Watchmen, and became a celebrated standard of the industry.
- The same year, comic writer and artist Frank Miller wrote the limited series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Miller expertly incorporated ideas of morality, warfare, gender roles and more into into an explosive, action-filled Batman storyline. Like Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns continues to be pertinent and worthy of discussion.
There are numerous graphic memoirs/autobiographies available, many of which are now incorporated into school lesson plans. These provide an in-depth, visually-rich look at the lives of people with diverse cultural experiences and unique perceptions of the world.
- Marjane Satrapi published the graphic novel Persepolis in 2000. In it, she describes her life growing up in Iran during the turbulent Islamic Revolution. This childhood memoir is made all the more accessible through her distinctive, bold drawing style.
- From 2013 through 2016, civil rights leader John Lewis published his graphic novel trilogy March, which documents his experiences as a nonviolent protestor during the United States Civil Rights Movement. Inspired by a comic book from his own childhood, Lewis teamed with author Andrew Aydin and artist Nate Powell to share his personal struggles and eyewitness accounts from this crucial time in America’s history.
Webcomics are a fairly new phenomenon. As the name suggests, these comics are internet-published and generally reflect our modern society’s need for instant, easily-accessible media — there are a lot of them, so you may have to trudge through a few to find the gems. While the two I’ll note here are not particularly political, I’m singling them out for our purposes because they’re each written from a strong, anecdotal point of view. Also, they’re often very funny.
- Cartoonist Allie Brosh launched the blog-style Hyperbole and a Half in 2009, which uses crude but charming drawings in a graphic essay-fashion to share personal challenges she faces as a young adult. Her confessional tone and wide-eyed stand-in lend humor to her material, some of which deals with more somber and serious topics.
- Sarah’s Scribbles is a series of webcomics started in 2011 by cartoonist Sarah Andersen. Like Brosh’s Hyperbole and a Half, Andersen’s material deals largely with facing the challenges of adulthood. In each comic, cartoon Sarah navigates life in a handful of panels. A recent episode depicts her simply sipping coffee while reading the news, her eyes wide and bulging from her head. “So much internal screaming,“ the final panel reads.
Info comics have been used as a more analytical approach to express positions. These comics offer cold, hard facts — minus the nuance of previous examples. Nevertheless, an info comic’s power, much like the others, is in the presentation. The combination of research and artistic value can make for one compelling argument; info comics are the most direct example of this. Always be sure to cite your sources!
- Cartoonist Maki Naro wrote and drew the comic Vaccines Work. Here Are the Facts. to illustrate the often-misunderstood science behind vaccines. Naro cites an impressive number of facts and figures, and accompanies them with a combination of expressive cartoons and diagrams. This passionate comic is a strong effort to help others make informed decisions about this fairly controversial topic.
- We here at Pixton have started creating and sharing Pixton Debates among our writings, which present two different sides of a particular issue as two separate comics. We’ve been writing and composing these using our own software; the idea is to offer alternate points of view, each accompanied by facts, to promote constructive dialogues. We encourage you to scope them out for further inspiration.
Give It Some Thought
If you’re encouraging students to make their own comics, remind them to put some real thought into their ideas. Brainstorm, plan, and execute. The process will help the maker better understand his or her own thoughts as they articulate them into stories, gags and honest-to-goodness works of art.
At Pixton, making such user-friendly comics is our specialty. Whether you’re a student, an educator, or someone who wants to have some fun with the format, our software is designed with your needs in mind. Lay out a comic, customize a cast of characters, and tailor a distinctive world to join the likes of the comic artists and writers listed in this article. Check out Pixton for Schools to get started.
On a personal note: While I myself have a background in drawing and design, Pixton relieves my impulse to hunker down on small visual details in favor of a focus on message and story. What I mean by that is that the user doesn’t have to be an “artist” to articulate thoughts and ideas; it’s something everyone can play with. For instance, rather than designing all of your own characters and backgrounds from scratch, Pixton has a considerable archive of pre-made characters and backgrounds that you can simply arrange or “tweak” to best articulate the image in your mind. Try it out for free, we’re quite proud of the work we do!
1. Join or Die (Franklin), 1754
2. The Plumb-pudding in danger or, State epicures taking un petit souper (Gillray), 1805
3. Watchmen (Moore) Copyright © 1986 DC Comics, Inc.
4. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (Miller, Janson, Varley) Copyright © 1986 DC Comics, Inc.
5. Persepolis (Satrapi) Copyright © 2000 Pantheon
6. March (Lewis, Aydin) Copyright © 2013 Top Shelf Productions
7. Hyperbole and a Half (Brosh) Copyright © 2013 Allie Brosh
8. Sarah’s Scribbles (Andersen) Copyright © 2017 sarahcandersen.com
9. Vaccines Work. Here Are the Facts. (Naro) Copyright © 2014 First Look Media
10. Pixton Debate: Common Core is Bad (Pixton) Copyright © 2017 Pixton Comics Inc.