Engaging Students through Cartoons, Characters, and Comics

by Jamie Megee

Creating an environment in which students are constantly engaged in the content is something that first year and veteran teachers both struggle with. To combat this struggle, implementing different types of primary sources into our lessons would be useful. Walt Disney propaganda cartoons to be extremely interesting and found them to be useful in the classroom.

Using sources such as animated cartoons, posters, and even feature films, can be a way to engage students in topics they may otherwise find boring or irrelevant. Using content from the Walt Disney Company would be a fantastic way to teach different topics. As documented in several biographies, the layout of certain parts of the Disney parks, and themes throughout the films, cartoons, and characters, Walt Disney was a huge patriot. Disney was a huge fan of the Revolutionary War period which many students find irrelevant. It happened so long ago, why does this matter? Why does this matter to me? 

 Answering these questions can be very difficult for the first-year teacher. Of course, educators in the field of social studies can agree that we have found something that has engaged us with the content. As a student, I remember finding films a very exciting way to engage in historical events, people, and themes.

Historical Background

“Movies can and do have tremendous influence in shaping young lives in the realm of entertainment towards the ideals and objectives of normal adulthood,” Walt Disney. The Walt Disney Company is generally associated with childrens’ movies, theme parks, and lovable iconic characters and the Walt Disney brand has been a consistent influence in American and global entertainment culture. During World War II, the Walt Disney Production Studio was one of the companies tasked with creating propaganda to enlist the American people into supporting the war effort on the home front. The Disney Production Studio took a firm anti-Nazi stance, evident in the animated shorts created during the era. One of their most influential and memorable pieces renowned worldwide was entitled Der Fuehrer’s Face. This cartoon aired in 1942 and went on to win an Academy Award the following year. This film was widely accepted and enjoyed by many throughout America and around the world.

Der Fuehrer’s Face was a cartoon primarily produced to promote American ideals about fighting the Nazis and how Americans should feel about the war. This is an example of how the Disney Company was promoting American ideals since its earliest days. One of Disney’s most beloved characters, Donald Duck, finds himself waking up in a dystopian German town living as a Nazi and as a lover and supporter of Adolf Hitler. He lives a day in the life of a worker in a demanding factory forced to show his adoration of “der fuehrer” in a never ending wave of demanded heils to show the conditions of life in Germany during the war. Finally, Donald wakes up back in America surrounded by strong images of American patriotism and is thankful to be alive in the wonderful nation. This firm anti-Nazi stance helped push the Walt Disney brand into the spotlight and homes of Americans who had access to television or attended movies.

The Walt Disney Production Studio was involved in the creation of different types of propaganda in support of America’s entrance into World War II. This helped rejuvenate the nation in a time when faith was fading. The Disney brand created pins, buttons, and patches for several branches of the military. They also designed paintings for airplanes based off of one of their newest characters: Dumbo the Flying Elephant. Because of all of this work in defense of the American cause, it is clear that Walt Disney Productions was promoting patriotism and freedom. At this time, the American people needed reassurance that the government and military were leading the United States to victory on the frontlines.

According to historian John Wills, “Disney Culture promotes a distinctive fantasy and simulation, facilitated by media, technology, and control, and mass consumption.” This mass consumption is what would define Walt Disney Productions as the large corporate entertainment company it is today, but the support of the American cause during World War II would be what propelled them into the American household and global spotlight in their early days. This article will analyze the cultural impact of Disney Production Studios and its propulsion into the American mainstream by promoting the “ideal America/n” between the years 1939-1945 and into the modern era. At this time, the short form cartoon was becoming more easily accessible to families and Disney quickly grew into the multi-faceted culture producer and influencer it is today. The Walt Disney Studios successfully created propaganda that pushed the brand into the cultural spotlight and helped launch it into having more influence in American culture. Walt Disney’s parks also represent the ideal America and helped to promote this message to a growing audience.

Educational Application

Because the Walt Disney Company is so widely renowned and beloved, using the content in the classroom to explain different themes would be beneficial and could reach almost every student in that class. With the growth of the Disney streaming service Disney +, the content is more accessible than ever. For example, a lesson around the issues of redlining could focus on the opening few scenes from “The Princess and the Frog.” This film shows two families, one white and rich and one black and struggling. Visualizing this issue through a cartoon could help students see the differences in towns very close to each other, but separated by their economic or racial demographics.

Using these films can also reach different themes in a way that makes them interesting for students. Themes such as determination, bravery, “doing the right thing,” “the importance of family,” “the importance of finding yourself.” All of these themes can be found in Disney movies and films. These themes are important to students in middle and high school because a lot of these things are what they are going through themselves. Connecting these themes to content can be difficult, but making those connections is what will bring students into the content and make it more relevant to them.

Teachers can also use these films to go through historical periods. For example, using Mulan to discuss Chinese heritage could be a good way to introduce that topic. Of course, that film has its flaws (as all films do), but this could be a way to quickly introduce the topic. Also, you could use the films and its flaws at the end of the unit or lesson as a project. Students could rewrite parts of the film to make it more historically accurate. Taking films with flaws and turning it into a way for students to show their command of the content through editing or rewriting would be a great way to assess student learning while also keeping them engaged in the content.

Something that could be used more frequently, though, would be the propaganda that the Walt Disney company created during World War II. This propaganda could be used in a Document Based Question. Having links to videos to analyze in a DBQ would also be a very engaging and different way to analyze documents. Seeing their favorite characters in a different setting may take some getting used to, but it would be a good way to get students involved in a DBQ. Of course, this is not their favorite task, but if we add different styles of documents such as comics, cartoons, and animated characters.

As educators, it is our responsibility to engage students in content that may not seem relevant or exciting to students. Using different sources such as cartoons, comics, or other characters that students are used to is a great way of connecting with content. There are several applications for using Disney films and cartoons. Using these in the classroom to teach themes could be helpful in connecting with students about problems or challenges they may be facing in their daily lives. This is not so much a content based connection, but this could help students understand more of what they’re going through.

Content wise, there are also several different applications. Using the films to discuss histories of different areas or cultures could be a way to introduce the topic at the beginning of a unit. Following a unit with a film could be beneficial if students were asked to change the film to make it more accurate. Disney’s propaganda films created during World War II would be appropriate to use in a document based question or for a primary source analysis activity. This could be a way to get students to practice this skill with something they seem more familiar with.

References

Disney, W.E. (1943). Der Fuehrer’s face. Cartoon. Walt Disney Production Company. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/bn20oXFrxxg

Sammond, N. (2005). Babes in Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the making of the American child, 1930-1960. Duke University Press, London.

Spangler, T. (2019, November 13). Disney Plus hits estimated 3.2 million app downloads on launch day.” Variety, November 13, 2019.

Watts, S. (1995).  Walt Disney: Art and politics in the American century.” The Journal of American History, 82 (1), 84-110.

Wills, J. (2017). Disney culture. Rutgers University Press: New Brunswick, NJ

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