“An editorial cartoon isn’t just a funny picture,” Pulitzer-Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Michael Ramirez told Rowland Hall eighth graders at a special virtual presentation on January 25. “A good editorial cartoon is a fine instrument of journalism: It defines an issue. It challenges hypocrisy. It reveals the best and the worst of humanity. It calls the reader to arms against the complacent, the lethargic, the evil-doers, the indolent body politic, the champions of the status quo, the sordid predators of society.”
Editorial, or political, cartooning isn’t often a subject that middle school students examine closely. So when Rowland Hall had the chance to invite Michael—uncle of eighth grader Elli Ramirez and senior Ke’ea Ramirez—to speak to eighth graders, teacher Sarah Yoon jumped at the chance. She knew that the discussion on editorial cartooning, free speech, journalism, and citizen responsibility would tie to current studies as well as give students a unique opportunity to interact with an esteemed artist: in addition to two Pulitzer Prizes (1994 and 2008), Michael’s awards include a 2015 Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year (the highest honor the profession bestows) and three Sigma Delta Chi awards for excellence in professional journalism (1995, 1997, and 2007).
Michael urged students to seek out balanced information on complex issues, noting that this practice will provide them with a more comprehensive view of those issues, help them better understand and solidify their own beliefs, and prepare them to have constructive conversations.
At the January 25 event, Michael talked about how he views his role to help protect and inform the public, and gave students the chance to ask questions about his work, his career path, and even his love of surfing. He also used the time to inspire students to become active citizens and, one day, voters. The job of members of a democratic republic, he told them, is to be informed.
“Information is a necessary component to guide you in a political system based on self-governance and individual liberties,” Michael explained. He urged students to seek out balanced information on complex issues, noting that this practice will provide them with a more comprehensive view of those issues, help them better understand and solidify their own beliefs, and prepare them to have constructive conversations.
“You cannot make a substantive opinion on anything if you don’t know the depth of what you’re talking about,” he explained. “You can’t build a car if you don’t know the mechanics of an automobile; in the same way, you cannot construct an argument unless you know the mechanics of the debate.”
Michael’s presentation encouraged students—some noted that it aided them in understanding the power of their voices, while others reflected on how learning about Michael’s career helped them realize that they can express themselves in creative ways. They tapped into this inspiration as they embarked on their post-event assignment: to create their own editorial cartoons. In the weeks following the presentation, they became junior editorial cartoonists, researching, editing, and drawing (by hand or computer) their opinions on topics such as the January 6 attack on the US Capitol and the impact of COVID-19. For Monica Fernandez, the assignment gave her a chance to share her views on a subject she cares deeply about: climate change.
“I decided on the subject of my cartoon because I think climate change is a very important and real thing in our lives, and we should all try and become more aware of it so we can make smarter decisions in our day-to-day lives,” she explained. Like Michael and his fellow editorial cartoonists do, Monica took time to research her topic and consider the best approach to make her viewers think.
Monica's perspective is a reflection of what she and fellow students took away from Michael’s presentation—that good editorial cartoons inform and challenge readers as well as draw them into debate and action, and that engaged citizens have a say in the destiny of their country.
“I decided to include an hourglass, because I think this was a good way to visually show how fast time is running out,” she reflected. “My original plan was to show different natural elements (animals, trees, glaciers, people, oceans), but after creating a rough draft I realized that it looked sloppy and didn’t get my point across. I decided to just use the visual of the globe, and I was more happy with that design. My end result was three hourglasses—as the time goes by, each hourglass has more sand at the bottom and less world left.”
Monica hopes that, in addition to making viewers think, this image may also inspire them to change behaviors. “Even the little things in life that we do on a day-to-day basis can affect how much longer we can all make this world last before it all runs out,” she explained.
Her perspective is a reflection of what she and fellow students took away from Michael’s presentation—that good editorial cartoons inform and challenge readers as well as draw them into debate and action, and that engaged citizens have a say in the destiny of their country. The powerful images the students created prove that it’s never too early to help them think about their role as American citizens and sharpen the skills that will support them in that role. After all, as Michael pointed out, “Developing future citizens and participants in our democratic republic is so important.”