Authentic Lessons for 21st Century Learning

The M.A.I.N. Cartoons of World War I

Understanding the Causes of World War I

Susan McHale, Laura Halstied, Becky Hilton, Heather Tilotson | Published: May 27th, 2022 by K20 Center

  • Grade Level Grade Level 9th, 10th, 11th, 12th
  • Subject Subject Social Studies
  • Course Course World History
  • Time Frame Time Frame 1-2 class period(s)
  • Duration More 90 minutes


In this lesson, students will explore the causes of World War I by completing a card sort and analyzing political cartoons. Students will create and present an anchor chart in groups over the causes of World War I.

Essential Question(s)

What were the causes of World War I? Why were so many nations involved in World War I?



Students brainstorm and categorize reasons for war through a sticky note activity.


Students examine the multiple causes of World War I by engaging in a card sort.


Students analyze a political cartoon about World War I in groups of four.


Students create an anchor chart explaining the political cartoon analyzed and explain how the cartoon relates to the causes of World War I.


Students present their anchor charts to the class in groups of four.


  • Lesson Slides (attached)

  • Card Sort (attached; one set per group size of your choice)

  • Card Sort Teacher’s Notes (attached)

  • Political Cartoons Packet (attached)

  • T.A.C.O.S. Cartoon Analysis (attached; one per student)

  • T.A.C.O.S. Teacher’s Notes (attached)

  • Anchor Chart Example (attached)

  • Sticky notes (one per student)

  • Large poster paper (i.e., sticky easel pad or butcher paper; one per group)


15 Minute(s)

Students should have read in their text some some information about World War I and the acronym M.A.I.N., (militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism) prior to this lesson.

Use the attached Lesson Slides to guide the lesson. Review the essential questions and lesson objectives on slide 3 and slide 4. Provide each student with a sticky note. Ask students to brainstorm and write a response on their sticky note to the question on slide 5, "What causes a nation to go to or participate in a war?" Ask students to place their sticky notes in one area such as on a white board or on a large piece of chart paper. Read some sticky notes aloud and group the sticky notes together that have the same theme to help students see similarities in responses. Have a class discussion about the responses students have written down and invite students to elaborate on their responses.


15 Minute(s)

Pass out the attached Card Sort to each student or student group. Display slide 6 and explain to students that there are four types of cards: militarism, alliances, imperialism, and nationalism. Have students sort the cards into the category each belongs to. After students have sorted the cards, check for understanding to make sure they have the correct cards under each category. Use the attached Card Sort Teacher's Notes to check for understanding. Ask students to briefly share out their reasoning. Allow a few minutes for students to re-sort their cards based on other students' explanations.


20 Minute(s)

Tell students that next they will deepen their understanding of the causes of World War I by analyzing political cartoons. Explain to students that political cartoons are created to provide a visual image of a historical or current event. All political cartoonists are expressing an opinion when creating political cartoons and students will analyze the political cartoon for the opinion expressed.

For this activity, students will use the T.A.C.O.S. Instructional Strategy. If students are not in groups already, place students into groups of four for the remainder of the lesson. Pass out the attached T.A.C.O.S. Cartoon Analysis handout for students to use during this activity. Briefly explain each part of the T.A.C.O.S. acronym on slide 7. Provide each group with one political cartoon from the attached Political Cartoons Packet. There are seven cartoons total, one for each group. You will need multiple copies of cartoons for classes larger than 28 students. Tell students to use the T.A.C.O.S. acronym to break down each part of the cartoon. Students should also decide which category of M.A.I.N. their given cartoon fits into. Use the attached T.A.C.O.S. Teacher Notes handout to check for understanding when students finish analyzing their cartoon. Ensure that students have identified the correct information and picked the correct category of M.A.I.N. before they move to the next activity.


30 Minute(s)

Tell students that next they will turn their political cartoon analysis into an Anchor Chart. The anchor charts created can be displayed in class for students to refer to throughout the unit on World War I. Provide each student with a large piece of paper and a variety of markers to create their anchor chart. Show slide 8 and review the requirements for the anchor charts that each group should include. Monitor students as they create their anchor charts. An example of a completed anchor chart is included in the attached materials.


30 Minute(s)

For the final activity, tell students they will present their anchor charts in groups to the class. Instruct students to explain each part of the political cartoon and information included on the anchor chart to the class including how the political cartoon analyzed explains a cause of World War I. So students can observe the cartoons in more detail during presentations, they are included on slides 9-15 for each group to display while explaining their anchor chart.

Have a class discussion with students debriefing the overall factors in Europe that led to the war. Possible questions to discuss include:

  • Which of the M.A.I.N. categories might be the most important in leading to war?

  • If one of the M.A.I.N. categories wasn’t a factor, would the war still have occurred?

  • Which categories of M.A.I.N. can be seen in our world today and does that create a cause of concern?

After students have presented their anchor charts, display them in class during the unit on World War I.