The Elements of Satire and Propaganda

Movies, books, and advertisements can help students understand satire and propaganda.

By Amy Wilding


satire and propaganda lesson plans

I once taught a twelfth grade English class that addressed how language can be a method to exert power over others. The essential questions we explored were how those in power, the government, media, and companies, can influence the behavior and decisions of society. Essentially, the course outlined how satire and propaganda can be used as a tool to influence people. Once we defined satire and propaganda on a basic level, I incorporated a variety of interactive activities that required students to identify the elements of satire, explain how it was being used, and define what the message was. Here are some of those ideas that helped students achieve their learning objectives.

Satire and Propaganda in Advertisements: One of our major discussions was about how people are manipulated into buying, or not buying, a product based on the images and language used by manufacturing companies. We started the activity by looking at some common products bought by students, and identifying the tactics used to sell them.  For example, to sell a beauty product, companies often use a celebrity or attractive people to prey on personal insecurities. Once students discussed these types of marketing strategies, they had to find their own examples, and explain the tactics used to the rest of the class.

Satire and Propaganda in Television: An easy way to engage students is to illustrate examples of satire and propaganda in their favorite television shows. “The Simpsons” and “Family Guy” are perfect for this purpose.  You can use practically any episode.  If you don’t have access to the DVD’s, search You Tube. Most of the clips I used I found there. One of my favorite examples is from “Family Guy.”  Search for “the wacky wailing inflatable arm-flailing tube man.”  I also used clips from "Shrek" to illustrate manipulation of common social stereotypes.

Satire and Propaganda in Cartoons: Satirical cartoons can be a bit challenging for students.  If you choose to explore cartoons, be sure you find some that are appropriate for your age group. I found that the best ones were political cartoons. I first created a packet for students to work with. We discussed several cartoons in class together, and then as small cooperative groups. Once they mastered analysis, I gave them a project to create a cartoon with a partner. I instructed them to create a propaganda-based cartoon for high school students. As part of the final product, each group had to explain the “hidden message” in the cartoon.  Many of the cartoons addressed the insecurities of teenagers, including the desire to buy the same brand of clothing or participate in the same club as others. The assignment helped me determine how well students understood satire and propaganda, and if additional practice was needed.  I did this activity prior to reading "Catch 22by Joseph Heller. I also included excerpts from a non-fiction text "UnSpun" by Brooks Jackson and Kathleen Hall Jamieson.

The main text we used with our unit was "Catch 22." Given the difficulty of the text, I used a blog as part of the requirements. I began by posting a generic question. Each student was asked to respond to a post and then ask a question of their own. For each posting, the student earned points toward their final blog grade. I found this technique very helpful simply because students who were reluctant to voice ideas in a large group could do so in a “smaller” environment. It also allowed for different classes to correspond with each other, making the viewpoints more diverse.

I also assigned chapter presentations. In pairs, students explained the main points of chapters and devised several higher-level thinking questions to pose to the rest of the class.  At least one question had to address where satire and propaganda could be found in the chapters. Students received points based on accuracy and the depth of the summary, as well as the quality of questions. 

An easier text that also addresses satire and propaganda is "A Brave New World" by Aldous Huxley. You can use this as a starting point for students prior to reading "Catch 22."

Here are some other satire/propaganda lessons that might be helpful. Many of the lessons I found had a similar foundation. They used parodies of news shows as a means of illustrating satire and propaganda. 

Satire and Propaganda Lesson Plans:

Fighting Fire With Satire

This lesson is very similar to my suggestion for creating student cartoons. I like the idea of using film as a launching point for discussion. A great film to do this with is "The Truman Show."

Tee Hee T.V.

This is a very complete lesson. There are links to articles as well as discussion questions. It is an engaging lesson in which students create a T.V. show. 

Gulliver's Travels

This lesson explores how satire is used to illustrate the dangers of manipulating science. A "Brave New World," or other texts, could easily be substituted. The lesson includes alternate titles as well as discussion questions. There is also a creative assignment.

"How I Edited an Agricultural Paper Once"

This lesson is set within a short story unit. However, I think it could be adapted to other units.  I like this lesson because the text is attached. There are also a variety of alternate stories as well as links to supplemental material. I think it would be a great lesson to try!

Literature Guide

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Amy Wilding