As we move past the 150th commemoration of the Civil War and start to come upon the 150th anniversary of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, it’s an excellent time as educators to reflect on how Reconstruction is presented in our classrooms. Our second post this summer will focus in on using political cartoons to teach elements of the Reconstruction time period.
Many times a Reconstruction unit can fall at the end of a school year and is often something that doesn’t get a whole lot of time for classroom lessons. Teaching Reconstruction can get lost as a result of Civil War research projects, field trips, state testing, and other end of the year activities. In my 8th grade classroom, we often have a limited amount to time to discuss and analyze the events of the Reconstruction. The challenge becomes how to maximize the time available for teaching. The end of the year is a good time for active , creative lessons that build off concepts learned in both Social Studies and English Language Arts. Using the political cartoons of the Reconstruction era can be a quick way to have students gain an understanding of this time period and practice some skills learned already. The Library of Congress web page provides excellent resources and activities for teachers and students to easily use. For this blog post, I used the information provided at the Library of Congress “Teachers” page. The lesson called “It’s No Laughing Matter” focuses on the persuasive language techniques often used in political cartoons.
Political Cartoons can be an engaging way to help students understand figurative language and master higher level concepts. The English Language Arts class in my school covers these terms throughout the year, so this activity can serve to allow students to apply what they have learned.
Review with students the persuasive techniques of a political cartoon from the Library of Congress “It’s No Laughing Matter”
Irony: the difference between the way things are and the way they are supposed to be. Irony can be used to express the cartoonist’s opinion
Symbolism: using simple objects to stand for larger concepts or ideas
Labeling: objects or people can be labeled to make it clear what they represent
Exaggeration: sometimes cartoonists overdo characteristics of people or things to make a point
Analogy : a comparison between two unlike things that share some characteristics. By comparing a complex issue or situation with a more familiar one, cartoonists can help their readers see it in a different light.
The Library of Congress website has a section of the lesson that allows the students to “test” themselves to see if they understand what each technique looks like in a real political cartoon. The activity gives quick feedback and explanations using real political cartoons. This activity could be done as a class or individually.
Analyzing Political Cartoons of the Reconstruction Era
Have students examine a set of political cartoons and drawings from the time period.
Click below to download a set of Reconstruction Political Cartoons that I use in class from the Library of Congress and National Archives
The Library of Congress has a basic political cartoon analysis guide to use.
Have students use the guide as a group or individually.
- Incorporate movement by hanging the images around the room and make it a gallery walk where the cartoons are analyzed informally.
- Place Post It notes next to the hung up images and ask students to write their thoughts on the image on the Post It and hang it up next to the corresponding image for others to see and react to.
- Assign groups of students one of the images to analyze and then have the group share
- Assign multiple students the same image to analyze on their own, then have them meet as a small group to discuss what they thought.
Student Created Cartoon
After students have had a chance to look at the political cartoons, have the students make up their own cartoon. I require my students to:
- incorporate at least 2 of the persuasion techniques
- include a written summary of what point their political cartoon is trying to make.
As a modification or adaptation, I provide a list of captions that a student could use as their main point.
Here are a few:
- The chains of slavery may have been broken, but there are still people in bondage!
- You got me in chains, you got me in chains with no rights!
- Chain, Chain, Chain, chains of rules
- America’s Next Top Criminal: Rutherfraud Hayes!!
- The journey to true freedom is not an easy one!
Class Discussion Option
(if you’re trying something like this for the first time, the end of the year may not be the right time if you haven’t established class expectations and procedures for this type of activity )
After placing students in groups , give them the task of being a Congressional committee that needs to come up with government policies to answer one , all or some of these questions depending on the time available.
It could lead to an interesting discussion. Students could write a reflection piece following the discussion and sharing .
Here are a list of potential questions to discuss that Kevin Levin has used:
(1) What responsibilities did the federal government have in protecting the rights of the newly-freed slaves?
(2) What steps should have been taken against former Confederates?
(3) What was the role of the U.S. military in enforcing the specifics of the federal government’s policy?
(4) What was the relationship between the former Confederate states and the nation?
If your students come to Gettysburg on a field trip and visit the museum, encourage your students to visit the exhibit gallery entitled “That These Dead Shall Not Have Died in Vain” on the impact of the 13th ,14th and 15th amendments. It’s a exhibit gallery that can be overlooked, but the story told there with artifacts and a brief film help bring Reconstruction to life. Encourage your students to visit it!
The Reconstruction Era is a significant time in our nation’s history that can often be overlooked in a school year’s curriculum. Why not use the 150th anniversary of the events that took place in the late 1860s and 1870s to take a renewed look at this time in American history? Take time to read through some the resources below, you may find that your own views on Reconstruction are challenged and possibly changed.
Sleeper, Martin. “What I Got Wrong When I Taught Reconstruction.” Facinghistory.org , 15 May 2015.
Quick article with links to some good books on the topic which could give you as the instructor more background knowledge
A digital exhibit “that examines one of the most turbulent and controversial eras in American history. It presents an up-to-date portrait of a period whose unrealized goals of economic and racial justice still confront our society. Based on a museum exhibit”.
Civil War Memory blog by Kevin M. Levin found at cwmemory.com
Search the archives of the blog for “Reconstruction” and you’ll find some excellent discussions on the topic, resources and class activities.
A lesson for high school classrooms from the Library of Congress teachers page
“ students use the collection’s Timeline of African American History, 1852-1925 to identify problems and issues facing African Americans immediately after Reconstruction. Working in small groups on assigned issues, students search the collection for documents that describe the problem and consider opposing points of view, and suggest a remedy for the problem. Students then present the results of their research in a simulated African American Congress, modeled on a congress documented in the collection’s special presentation, Progress of a People.”
Comment here with other ideas for teaching Reconstruction!