Violet Vegan Comics

So pleased to find this blog of vegan-message-themed comics and poems for all audiences! Here’s a page devoted to comics especially written For Little Ones.

One of my favourites is“Where Are You Going, Deirdre?” It is based on the true story of a brave mother who risked her life to hide her calf in order to keep him from the farmer. Through colourful illustrations and kid-friendly dialogue, we see a young human learn the sad truth of what happens to the infants dairy cows are forced to birth. The story ends happily, with the girl helping the farmer understand that the baby belongs with his mum, and deciding to turn his farm into a sanctuary. Children wonder:

  • Is it sometimes okay to take something that doesn’t belong to you if you think you need it? Why or why not? [If children say yes, explore the difference between taking something without hurting anyone very badly – e.g. a mother who steals bread to feed her children – vs. physically harming someone, killing, or separating families.]
  • What is the difference between want and need? [Younger children could make contrast posters or pages in their Philosophy Journals with pictures or words showing Want on one side and Need on the other.]
  • Is it possible to love animals and hurt them at the same time? What does it mean to love?
  • Many people do things they know are wrong because everyone they know does it too, and this makes it even harder to stop. Why is it so difficult to break habits? If lots of people do something harmful together, does it make it less bad? Why or why not?
  • Do we have a responsibility to help others/our friends make compassionate decisions? Why or why not?

The poem“Nature Returns” envisions Earth after humanity. Through beautiful personification and vivid imagery of the Earth “stretching” to recover from what people have done to her, the poem opens important questions about our impact on and responsibility to the Earth:

  • Does the Earth belong to people? Explain your answer.
  • What does it mean to take care of the Earth?
  • Have you ever wondered if plants have an awareness of what is happening to them?
  • If a forest doesn’t know what is happening to it, does it make it okay to destroy it? Why or why not?
  • Does nature have inherent value [for itself, not for someone else]? Why or why not/explain.

When you finish reading a comic or poem, check out Violet’s section on Things to Make And Do to get creative or get out of the house.

Let me know what your favourite poem or story is and how you discussed it in the comments below!

Who bears the responsibility to act?

This week I have been wondering, who bears the responsibility to fix human beings’ mistakes? What does it mean to be responsible for something? What does it mean to take responsibility? Can you “be responsible” for something without taking responsibility? Can you “take responsibility” for doing something about a problem without being responsible for it? Why are most of the world’s injustices and crises being worked on by people who did not cause them? 

Over the past two summers, I have had the privilege of working with extraordinary teenage activists at Youth Empowered Action Camp. Young people come from all over the world to spend part of their summer working hard with other activists, attending workshops, and learning how to be the most effective change-makers they can be on the issues that matter most to them. Many campers are working on environmental protection, and one of my mentees is starting a school club to get high school students mobilized to stop climate change and make the connection between factory farming and the massive harm that animal exploitation wreaks on the environment (more greenhouse gases than the entire transportation sector combined!) One of my 12-year-old campers in Australia (yes, she came to the USA from Australia for activism camp!!) is working to end live export. Since camp ended just a couple of weeks ago, she already has been gathering petition signatures, met the director of Animals Australia (!), and made progress on planning her animal rights-focused YouTube channel. 

Another camper is working to change the name of her school so it no longer honours a confederate leader. It was named after this person in protest of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling against segregation. (Both links above include more info about the problems and petitions to support the campaigns.) 

Another camper, a young woman originally from the USA but currently living in Beijing, is working to improve the air quality in China and get children access to masks. Did you know that the pollution is so bad now that children have to wear masks to go outside? And if, like many children, they don’t have access to masks, they have to just stay indoors because it is not safe? The latest exciting news on her project is that a company is donating 500 masks to her school. 

These young people are standing up and taking action not because anyone told them to but because they are compelled by their own sense of justice and urgency. Here is an account by a camper I worked with last year who named YEA Camp as the coolest thing she had ever done, and came back as a mentor this year:
These teenagers are so inspiring to me and show us the future that can be. Too often, potential activists fall prey to the bystander effect and diffusion of responsibility: Sometimes the more atrocious and urgent the problem is, and the more onlookers there are to the problem, the less likely someone is to actually intervene, because we each assume that somebody else must be taking care of it. What does it take for someone to step up and do something? What makes us choose to act on certain issues over others? Please engage with these ideas in the comments, and I would love to hear: Do you consider yourself an activist? What inspires you to take action? What are some obstacles that have discouraged you from taking action on an issue or issues that matter to you? What resources and support would you need to make the difference you would like to?  

Community of Inquiry Code of Conduct: Language Arts “Lesson”

I recently finished a five-week unit on My Side of the Mountain in my grade four classroom, in which I incorporated philosophical inquiry into each week of study. My Side of the Mountain, for those who don’t know, is Jean Craighead George’s 1959 novel about a boy (we never find out for certain his age, a subject of much contention among my students!) who runs away from home to live in the Catskill Mountains. All the lessons I teach this semester are aligned to the United States Common Core Standards. Happily, the skills practiced in Community of Inquiry fit neatly into the English Language Arts standards. Below is my lesson plan for day two of the unit, the day I introduced philosophy. My first observation was during this lesson, and it went quite well. There is an emphasis on student autonomy and inquiry. Students are held to high standards and expected to participate fully. There are multiple ways to participate, and students are encouraged to help each other feel safe sharing half-formed thoughts as part of the learning process for everyone. I’d love constructive feedback on my work and would love other educators to share their experiences supporting Community of Inquiry in ELA. 

Lesson Plan: My Side of the Mountain Week One, Day Two


  • Students develop a working definition of philosophy and philosophical inquiry that includes heightened respect for diverse perspectives and a sense of wonder/intellectual curiosity.
  • Students work together to develop their own Community of Inquiry Code of Conduct – a set of guidelines for philosophical inquiry stressing civil discourse, respect for community members, and critical thinking.

Common Core Standards:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.4.1.B: Follow agreed-upon rules for discussions and carry out assigned roles.

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.SL.4.1.C: Pose and respond to specific questions to clarify or follow up on information, and make comments that contribute to the discussion and link to the remarks of others.

Student Engagement/Timeline: 

1. Students convene in a circle on carpet. Introduce philosophy: I majored in philosophy in college largely because I think it is one of the most fun things to do. You get to think really hard about questions you care about with people you care about, and learn from each other – wow. Philosophical questions are special in four ways:

  • You can’t look up the answer in a book or encyclopaedia.  You can’t just ask a grown-up either! Philosophical questions take debate and careful reasoning to decide what we think.
  • You need to be able to disagree. There isn’t just one right answer. In this way, philosophy is a lot like poetry and literary interpretation. Different perspectives can be valid even if they come to different conclusions.
  • You can change someone’s mind using reasons. Some questions we may never agree on, like “what’s the tastiest flavour of ice cream?” If I really love chocolate, and you really love vanilla, there isn’t something you can say to convince me that I’m wrong. But if I really think that homework on the weekends is important, and you disagree, you might be able to convince me that you’re right. A philosophical question is not just a matter of opinion. 

2. Philosophy isn’t just something you study; it’s something you do. Sometimes philosophical questions come out of a story. I’ll give you an example. Who here has read The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein? [take hands, take one person to paraphrase for those who haven’t read] So raise your hand if you think the boy in the story did something wrong. [briefly discuss different perspectives – even people who agree that the boy went wrong at some point tend to disagree on when he went wrong. Most people agree that playing with the tree and eating just a few apples was okay.]

Post-lesson note: I had expected almost everyone in a small town, middle-class New England community school to have heard this story at some point. I was mistaken, or at least many had not heard it in years. It ended up taking a while longer than I’d planned to explain the story, so I would suggest referring to a story the class had recently read together.

These kinds of philosophical questions are ethical questions – they are questions about how we should behave. There are lots of different areas of philosophy, and we’re going to get to talk about them this semester. In our Wednesday book groups for the next few weeks, we’re going to get to do philosophy with Sam Gribley in My Side of the Mountain. In order to be successful, we’re going to create a Code of Conduct to help us.

3. Code of Conduct: What is a code? [different types, students throw out a few ideas] → here we are talking about a contract. Our Code of Conduct is an agreement about how we are going to treat each other and how we are going to do our best thinking.

What does our community want to include? Think/pair/share time here so everyone gets a chance to contribute. Stress everyone’s ideas are valuable and actually essential to community development. Then come back to large group to create final list.

{{I try to encourage some version of the following in order to have a successful CI, but all in students’ own words. Usually students come up with a variation on these themselves; if they don’t, I just ask questions – e.g. “Do you think we should have anything about what we do while someone is talking?”

  1. One person speaks at a time.
  2. Listen to the person who is speaking.
  3. When it is my turn to speak, I say whether I agree or disagree and why OR I ask a question about what has just been said.
  4. Everyone’s ideas are valuable. }}

These are some strategies my fourth graders had already been practicing before I joined their classroom that we’ve incorporated effectively into our Community of Inquiry:

    1. Agree/disagree with the idea, not the person.
    2. Everyone gets a chance to speak → “name tokens” to show everyone’s spoken already at least twice, no one dominates
    3. Use body language to communicate focus. Eyes on the speaker, body still, no side conversation.
    4. After you finish speaking, call on the next person. Look for someone who hasn’t spoken yet.

A communication tool I learned at Eurekamp that my fourth graders have made great use of: If you have a build on to what’s just been said, put in two fingers. If you have something brand new to say, put in one finger. Try to first call on people who have a “build on” so that we can go really deep into each question before we move on.

4. The role of dialogue, discourse, and collaboration – “good talk:”

  • Is dialogue teacher led?  Does it include the teacher?  How are groups structured?

Discussion occurs in circle on the floor – no one at the “front.” At first, teacher calls on students. When we move to creating Code of Conduct, students call on each other.

5. What is the (expected) range of challenges for your learners and what supports are you building in for them? This is something for each educator considers for themself.

In general, students tend to range from very talkative to very quiet, and from very confident to very wary. We build in time for students to speak in pairs in addition to the large group discussion that makes up the majority of the lesson. When asking questions to the large group, we give enough wait time to allow all students the time they need to process and decide whether or not they would like to contribute. By using talking tokens in the large group and combining large group discussion with pair/shares, we ensure that every student will have the opportunity to share ideas with peers and will feel a responsibility to do so.

6. What evidence of learning are you looking for (to guide your teaching)?

Students are practicing the skills of sharing ideas and listening to other people’s ideas.

Engaged students will…

  • listen attentively to peers.
  • contribute original thoughts of their own that connect to the questions raised.
  • provide reasons and/or evidence to back up their claims.


Hey check out this fun graphic I found about collaboration. It’s a Venn diagram! How philosophy-relevant!


“Mountain Tambourine”

“Mountain Tambourine,” Peter van Toorn (Canada), This Same Sky p. 102 (see Resource List)

A crew took part of the big tree awaypoplar tree
on my street. A poplar, it was throwing
its ashes, its dirty pillow stuffing,
around too much. So they said. Anyway,
people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something,
a power or phone line. What’s still standing
they’ll come for tomorrow and chop away.
It doesn’t make much poplar talk now. The big
clatter’s gone out of it. On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.
It leans to one side at a warm angle,
like Annie, whose door it covered last fall.

Background on Philosophical Issues

Environmental Ethics

“Mountain Tambourine” makes us wonder what our roles are as people in relation to the earth and its inhabitants. The people in the poem cut a tree down, presumably because it has been inconveniencing humans. Is it okay to destroy non-human nature in order to make ourselves more comfortable? Our instincts might be to say no, but we must realize that our day-to-day lives depend on doing just this every day. Every time I write on a sheet of paper or print out an essay for school, I depend on the systematic destruction of forests. Every time I get in a car or even ride a bus or train, I support the creation of more exhaust fumes that pollute the air and make it difficult for all species of animal and plant life to live. Every time I open a plastic package, I know the material will ultimately end up leaching chemicals into the earth and/or being picked up and choked on by a bird or fish who mistakes it for food. My waste and its consequences will be around long after I am gone. Does this mean we should reject all forms of industrial living? Some people say yes, and choose to live entirely “off the grid” and/or as fruitarians – individuals who do not consume anything that caused another living entity, animal or plant, to die. Others believe that we can find a morally-acceptable balance between considering the interests of present-day humans, the interests of other species of animal and plant life, and the interests of future generations. Either way, it is difficult to imagine living in today’s society without in some way relying on paper made from trees that have been killed. How do we reconcile our wishes to treat the earth with “respect” and “kindness” and our urge to maintain the habits and conveniences we have grown up accustomed to?

Philosophy of Language

The tree almost becomes a character in this poem. The speaker refers to the tree’s “poplar talk,” and the tree has a “tired branch.” This personification compels us to consider what it really means to communicate. Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) revolutionized how we think about language and communication. For Wittgenstein, effective communication depends on a “language game,” in which all the participants in a conversation agree on the same “rules.” Under this understanding, words mean something only within the context of a culture. The meanings of words, of course, depend on how individuals interpret them.

What is the relationship between language and communication? Wittgenstein hypothesized a “private language” (though he didn’t refer to it with this name). Wittgenstein believed that a private language – a language that only one person understands – would be meaningless. The reasoning behind this is that each word has meaning only in relation to other words. If someone makes up a word but has nothing to relate it to, then even the originator would not be able to explain her own language. This seems to imply that any language must be communicated between multiple people. If this is true, it could imply that the formation of language and even concepts depends on set, agreed-upon rules of behaviour.

However, others have put forth a wider definition of language, which can include a language spoken only to the self. If even trees can have language, would this mean they have thoughts and consciousnesses? Or would it mean that language doesn’t require consciousness? On the other end of the spectrum, is it possible for someone to have thoughts without having access to language, or do we need language in order to formulate thoughts?



Candlish, Stewart; Wrisley, George. “Private Language.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.
Richter, Duncan. “Ludwig Wittgenstein.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Sample Questions for Discussion

“…people were tired of it. It was too grey.
It might drop a tired branch and hit something…”

  • What are some reasons that people cut down trees? Are these good reasons or bad reasons? Why?
  • What should we do if one living entity’s existence is hurting another living entity?
  • Should the people cut the poplar tree down? Why or why not?
    • Does it matter/would your answer change if the tree were endangering buildings, plants, or animals? Why or why not?
    • What if it were only inconveniencing humans but not in danger of actually hurting anyone?
    • If the tree were endangering animals, would it matter/would your answer change if it were endangering human or nonhuman animals? Why or why not?

“…On the older
side of the street, the last tree stands, tall, big,
full, leafy—a fine shade and rain holder.”

  • Do trees have a purpose? If so, what is it and why do you think so?
    • If so, do all trees have more or less the same purpose?
  • Do people have a purpose?
    • If so, do all people have the same purpose?
  • If there were no people on earth, would the purpose of the tree be the same?
  • Who gets to decide what something or someone’s purpose is?
  • What should happen when someone or something cannot fulfil its purpose any longer?
  • Is a purpose the same thing as a goal? Why or why not/if not, what is the difference?

“It doesn’t make much poplar talk now.”

  • What does it mean to “talk” or to “make talk?”
  • Do you think the “poplar talk” means the tree was making sounds, the tree was communicating, or something else?
  • Can the sound(s) trees make be classified?
  • Do trees talk/do trees communicate? How so/can you think of some examples?
  • Can we talk to trees? Why or why not?
  • Is “talking” always the same as “speaking?” Why or why not?
  • Does “talking” always involve sounds?
  • When people use their hands to communicate using one of the hundreds of codified signed languages around the world, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • When humans or other animals use gestures or facial expressions to communicate, is that talking? Why or why not?
  • If I say something that only I understand, is that a language? Why or why not? If I interpret the sounds of nature to mean something but no one else understands them the same way, is that language? Why or why not?
Koko understands spoken English and ASL, and she uses over 1000 signs to communicate with other gorillas and with humans.

*Note: Many of the questions above were inspired by a discussion with the Spring 2015 Smith College Poetry Concentration Senior Capstone course. I am indebted to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and all my amazing peers for opening up these ideas. Thank you!

Environmental Ethics Activities

Related Resources

  • The Giving Tree book module by Professor Tom Wartenberg
    • Includes summary of the beloved illustrated poem by Shel Silverstein, guidelines for philosophical discussion with philosophical background, and example discussion questions.

Example Discussion: “Mountain Tambourine”

This is a loose summary of a practice discussion I led with a group of undergraduates February 2015, role-playing as second graders. Just an example of how many directions one poem can take us!

Note that I’ve presented the poem “Mountain Tambourine” as raising issues in environmental ethics, but this discussion went off on an entirely different thread that I had never imagined. The more varied perspectives you have in your Community of Inquiry, the more potential for new thought you have. I am incredibly grateful to Professor Ellen Doré Watson and my peers in the Smith College 2015 Poetry Concentration Capstone for their insight and perspective in this and other discussions, and their support and input on my entire project. Love you all!


Preliminary question: So we’ve been working together for a good while and seem to know pretty well how to respect each other and take turns. We know it is always important to respect each other, but is there any reason that it might be especially central to our philosophy circle, and that we might take special care to make sure we are paying attention to each other equally?

Josie – Speech is already so gendered and racialized, so this is an attempt to inhabit a different way of persuasion.

Hannah B – If no space for everyone to share, then you limit the number of responses and perspectives you have access to. Allowing space for everyone to share helps you make your own reasoning as strong as it can be.

If I talk too much, I could make someone else who’s already nervous about talking even more nervous. The kind thing to do is to give others space to come to thoughts.

“Mountain Tambourine” – read as a group

“Go-Round” – everyone shares a question or two that the poem raises for them. [After note: I’ve bolded the question starters/elements that are little flags that signal “philosophy” to me – opportunities for a facilitator or fellow student to jump in and ask further questions to stimulate a juicy philosophical discussion.]

  • What is “the last tree?” Does she mean just last on the street, or something deeper?
  • Jamie – how do the words “mountain tambourine” relate to the poem about a poplar being cut down?
  • Jamie – Who gets to determine the worth of the tree’s life, and who gets to decide they can kill it?
  • Josie – Do we have the right to make something disappear if it’s not convenient?
  • Rebecca – What makes something “too grey?” especially a tree
  • what makes a tree better than another?
  • Kyle – could this be about social death?
    • thinking about scapegoats and the Holocaust
    • could the tree relate to the Jews being removed from Europe – how could I understand the poplar as a group of people, public removal of a group if they can’t be silent in their own existence? [metaphor?]
      • Hannah B.  – What happens when a tree disappears/people is removed?
  • Hannah B.  – what does it mean to be around “too much?” What is “too much?”
  • Hannah B. – how to we classify the sound that trees make? Is that a kind of language or a kind of music? Is something being told to us?
  • Hannah – how does sound operate in the poem? – how do we classify the sounds that trees make? how do we articulate “tree sounds?”
  • Ellen – thinking about something being wrong for being the colour that it is – “If grey is what it is, then how could it be too that?”
  • or being “dirty” – being wrong just for being what it is, dropping its leaves?
  • Maggie – How do we think about sickness? At one point should we try to heal something vs. doing away with it entirely?
  • Maggie – What purpose do trees have?

As a group, we go over the questions and decide which one to discuss first. If necessary, the group can vote, but our circle decided quickly that most people were very interested in the final question posted, “What purpose do trees have?” And the participants jumped right in.

Josie – They don’t have a purpose!

Ellen – I think their purpose is to be a tree.

J – But do we get to decide that? What does it mean?

E – No, I guess we don’t get to decide.

Kyle – But how does a tree get to self-determine?

Jamie – I think the purpose is to provide fuel for humans.

Hannah B. – But what if there were no humans?

Rebecca – But if you cut down a tree it’s no longer a tree. [Something in retrospect I could have asked as a facilitator here – is one essential property of a tree that it is upright and/or living? If a tree dies of natural causes and falls over, is it no longer a tree?]

Ellen – The person who wanted to use trees for fuel shouldn’t cut all of them down. They should also be mindful to always be planting more.

Hannah B. – A tree is more than the sum of its parts (wood, roots, potential for paperness) – not just for utilitarian consumption.

Ellen – Can I ask a question of the people who are defending the treeness – does that mean we should never cut trees down?

Hannah – Well should we never let a human die?

*Distinction between killing and letting die! Do we kill humans when they are past their prime?*

Josie – I think you can’t make ultimatums – always right or wrong.

Ellen – Is it different to kill a tree than a human?

Hannah B. – YES. But can I tell you exactly how?…. No. I’m not a tree.

Rebecca – And we’re humans, so of course we’re not going to say it’s better to kill a person.

Hannah B. – We don’t have the same function as a tree.

Maggie – From a biological perspective, the function of a tree is to make more trees, just as the function of a human is to make more humans. So killing a tree is bad for the tree, but not necessarily bad for the human.

Ellen and Jamie – You can’t eat trees, so once we started gravitating towards agricultural societies (vs. hunter-gatherer/gatherer-scavenger), human cultures have needed to cut them down to clear land in order to make room to cultivate plants that we could eat.

Josie – But many cultures have lived among trees without killing them.

Kyle – Going back to “Ginko” poem [discussed earlier in the session, a poem that is a kind of performative poem, to be said aloud in the presence of a ginkgo tree, repeating the word “gingko” again and again in an effort to gain a deeper appreciation for the entity] – Trees have many purposes. They produce oxygen, etc., homes for birds.

Maggie – But that’s still assuming utilitarian purpose – its function being for someone else.

As a facilitator, I interject here to note I see two different big questions orbiting around themselves now:

  1. Does everything have a purpose?/What is “purpose?”
  2. What would happen if we never cut down another tree? Could humans survive? (more of a scientific question.

but then coming off that, what if we assume that humans do need to cut down some trees in order to live, but that other life could continue even if we didn’t?

“Snaps” to vote for which question we’ll focus on now → “Purpose” gets all the snaps.

Jamie – “Trees have babies every year.”

→ We all laugh, but as a facilitator I point out this is a good point. This is a particular distinction between trees and humans: Trees get more chances to perpetuate their lineage than people do.

Josie – It feels like we’re anthropomorphizing the tree when talking about “baby trees” etc.

Hannah B. – interjection for a question – Are we asking about the purpose, or a purpose??

Because we generally see people as having many different “purposes.” When someone dies, we might say “oh, she didn’t have children, but she painted such gorgeous pieces.”

Maggie – Creating works of art seems to be a kind of “creation” akin to giving birth – putting some part of yourself out there.

Josie, Hannah B. – “To whom does your purpose belong?” “If you’re existing in a vacuum, what is purpose?”

Jamie – “We’re also talking about purpose as if it definitely exists.”

Maggie – “Is there a difference between not having a purpose but still being in existence, and just having being in existence being the purpose itself?”

Hannah B. – If our purpose is to procreate, then that means existence isn’t enough.

Rebecca – What if we say our purpose is to live, not just to exist? Is there a difference?

Hannah B. – I think our intuitions say there is a distinction but it’s not universal – that distinction is wrapped up in our cultural/religious influences.

Maggie – Not existing can’t really be said to be a failure of the purpose of existing, but dying could be a failure of the purpose of “living.”

Hannah B. – Are there sort of levels of existing? From physical realm to memory to erased entirely …

We had to end the discussion here due to time constraints, but spent a few minutes recapping what we had discussed and tracing how far we had come. Philosophical progress rarely ends in one definitive answer, but can be recognized by charting the path from where the discussion starts to where it ends up. Ideally, some clarity will be reached about certain points, and many new questions will arise, allowing the group to delve far deeper into the subject(s) than they were when the discussion began.

Activity: What is “Natural?”

Thanks are due to Professor Thomas Wartenberg of Mount Holyoke College for the initial idea that prompted this activity.

  1. Cut up ten slips of paper and write the following:
  • a living tree
  • a dead tree
  • a piece of paper
  • a living dog
  • a leather jacket
  • an automobile
  • a bouquet of cut flowers
  • a rock
  • the Earth
  • you
  1. Have the group sort the papers into three piles: Natural, Not Natural, and Unsure. This may require extensive discussion, as participants will disagree! If you have a large group (more than six or seven), consider splitting the group in half and having each small group do the activity separately, and then come back together to discuss how you made the choices you did.
  2. Pay special attention to the Unsure pile. Why are those items not classifiable? Would you need more information about the object/entities to make a decision? What would you need to know?
  3. Is the word “natural” itself an objective word, or does it have multiple meanings?