5 Cartoons That Belong in the Classroom

1) Grave of the Fireflies

  • Theme to teach: War
  • Content warning: disturbing depictions of war; deaths of children
  • To illustrate the horrors of war, there simply cannot be a more directly touching film. Foregoing the traditional route of showing war on the battlefield, this story actually shows the effect the violence has on two children orphaned by the destruction, who slowly find that their once-loving relatives and neighbors have now turned into merciless monsters, concerned only with their own survival. Touching, heartfelt and gut-wrenching in its realism, Grave of the Fireflies is a great tool to teach students the emotions of war and its effects on civilian life. Based on a semi-autobiographical novel and filled with teachable moments to analyze the thoughts and motivations of various characters, this is a story you simply cannot miss.

Cartoons: they aren’t exactly given the Shakespeare treatment in literature circles. Some scoff with derision, others giggle at the impropriety of it all, while others still meekly raise their hands and try to argue that if history teachers can get away with showing political cartoons, why aren’t English teachers allowed to demonstrate the finer points of Hamlet to toddlers through Sesame Street? But regardless of public attitude, it is fact that behind the pretty colors, there lies an extremely varied spectrum of content in animation. And, if we actually open our teacher hearts enough to recognize it, we may find some animation that is conducive to some truly profound discussion in our classrooms. Plus, we might get recognized as the cool teacher that plays cartoons, so there’s always that. Therefore, to familiarize you with a different kind of bookshelf for your class, here are five pieces of animation that belong in the classroom.

Note to editors: where possible, I have also included content descriptors to make selection easier and unit planning easier.

2) Naoki Urasawa’s Monster

  • Themes to teach: Racism, Violence
  • Content warning: depictions of murder, racial violence, sexual violence–carefully select passages
  • Highlighted by Junot Diaz in TIME Magazine as his guilty pleasure, Monster explores the strain of Nazism that survived in Europe long after Hitler’s downfall, and how this permeates into every aspect of society. Themes such as prostitution, violence against children, and racial discrimination are all explored through the eyes of protagonist Kenzo Tenma, a doctor who sacrificed his career to save the life of a young boy who grows up to be a serial killer. There are more sociological problems studied here than can ever be listed in an article of this length, and the story is therefore best reserved for the most mature classes.

3) Captain Planet

  • Themes to teach: Environmental Preservation, Discrimination and War
  • Content warning: mature themes such as hate, racism
  • You may remember in your younger days a small cartoon called Captain Planet. If you don’t, it was basically the last piece of compelling edutainment ever put on TV. Five teenagers from diverse ethnic, racial and social backgrounds acquire five magical rings that allow them to control an element of nature. Using these forces, they attempt to fight people who create pollution. But before you think it is just environmental issues they are tackling, the show actually takes on all kinds of “pollution,” whether environmental, moral or intellectual. One episode talks about a teenager being discriminated against for having HIV. Another shows a world where the civil rights movement never happened and segregation was, therefore, still blatantly legal. Yet another, dubbed “The Ultimate Pollution,” shows a villain fanning the flames of war and selling arms to both sides of the conflict in the Middle East. There are definitely a lot of issues to cover, and at least one episode for nearly every problem to discuss in an English class.

4) X-Men Evolution

  • Themes to teach: Discrimination, social relations
  • Content warning: some violence, mild
  • The X-Men series has always been more than willing to draw parallels to real-life discrimination and hate. Whether it is mutants facing a “Superhuman Registration Act” that pretty much makes it okay to spy on them or the opposition’s head boss being a Holocaust survivor who knows what happens when bigots come into power, X-Men: Evolution owns its series’ heavy-handed narrative potential while offering a relatively kid-friendly incarnation of the superhero team. Show the second arc of the series on any chapter related to the civil rights movement.

5) Static Shock

  • Themes to teach: Racism, gang violence, family
  • Content warning: some violence, mild
  • While there are other superheroes that don’t exactly look like Superman or come from Bruce Wayne’s country club, no one really has the feel of Static. It’s not that he is a middle-class African-American superhero; he’s a superhero that happens to be African-American. And while the main driving force of the series is protagonist Virgil Hawkins’ wit and sarcastic bite, there’s a lot in the story that has tremendous value in the classroom. Virgil reluctantly gets involved in a gang where he is even handed a firearm by the leader, has to deal with racial profiling, and even has an episode where his best friend’s father turns out to be a bigot. There are a lot of problems that are dealt with in the series, and done so through the lens of such a compelling, smart-mouth teenager that this show even has a lot of value for adult viewers. Just remember to not lose track of kids as you get swept away in the story.

I hope I was able to share with you some resources that you may consider for your classroom. If there are any other cartoons that you feel would really help teachers out, please do sound off in the comments below.