Wednesday, April 9, 2014

TACOS and Political Cartoons

4/2/2014 Wednesday Words Tip “TACOS and Political Cartoons”

My three year old is pretty observant. Even though she can’t read yet, she can already recognize symbols. She knows what the Target store symbol means. She knows which door leads to the men’s restroom and which leads to the women’s. She has learned that the red circle with the slash through it is a symbol for “no” and likes to ask me things like “why trucks can’t go there” (a no-trucks sign). She recognizes that the person with the crown in a storybook is a king, queen, prince or (most likely, sigh) a princess.

Visuals are powerful. Even the new baby has learned that when he sees a bottle it means food.

Our students tend to have a love-hate relationship with visuals, particularly political cartoons in Social Studies classes. On one hand, kids tend to think images are easier to read because they don’t have any (or many) words. On the other hand, kids sometimes think they need to be in a Dan Brown novel to understand all the obscure symbols in some cartoons.

Understanding political cartoons is an essential social studies skill. It is an indisputable literacy skill that belongs to us, not to English/Language Arts or science or math. We know that political cartoons will appear on our EOCs and AP exams. Our kids need to get better at interpreting them and feel confident in using them. It’s a skill needed for civic engagement. It’s something informed adults do.

And it’s challenging!
If you’re looking for a new tool to use with political cartoons, try TACOS. It’s an acronym, of course, from an AP Institute. Teach your students to look for the following things in a political cartoon:
·         Time -- When was this cartoon created? Are there any context clues to help me figure out the time? Are there any actual dates referenced? What do I know about that time?
·         Action -- What actions are happening in the cartoon? What are people doing or saying?
·         Caption(s) – What captions are included? Students need to write down all of the words or text in the cartoon, including captions, speech bubbles, labels, text boxes, etc.
·         Objects -- What THINGS or objects do we see in the cartoon? Are any exaggerated in size or action?
·         Summary or So-what -- What’s the point? What does this have to do with real life or with what we are learning about in class? Why is this important?

If you find your kids are struggling with the very English/Language Arts skills of symbolism, irony, analogy, and exaggeration, the Library of Congress Classroom Materials have a wonderful lesson you can use to directly, explicitly teach the skills needed to interpret cartoons.

Check out the lesson at (copy and paste if this link doesn't work correctly)

It includes practice cartoons, identifying parts of a cartoon, teacher resources, and a pdf explaining symbolism, irony, etc. It’s very basic, but sometimes going back to basics is just what our kids need to learn or relearn this skill. It looks easy to implement as a mini-lesson in the classroom. I love the ability to digitally match the cartoon concept (like exaggeration) to the part of the cartoon it explains (like a giant door or huge Uncle Sam or Jay Leno’s chin). It would be a fun whole-class activity on a Smartboard or projector or more fun individually on laptops or ipads.

What do you think about teaching political cartoons? Do you have any favorite, tried-and-true, successful methods? Are you looking to update your teaching or reviewing of this skill? If any of you try TACOS or the LOC lesson will you drop me a line and tell me how it goes?
As always, I love to hear from you! Email me at


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