I've used Ishmael for the past few semesters in my Freshman Composition class to inspire students writing essays about their personal connections with environmental issues. This is a required course, and since Towson State has a very large business department, many of the students are career-track business majors. I had 18 students in each of my two sections.
When I read the book, I was very enthusiastic about it and was sure my students would be, too. I like to see Freshman Composition as an avenue for, at the least, consciousness raising and, at the most, social change, and I felt Ishmael would help do that.
We spend about two weeks with the book doing a variety of activities. 1. As students read the book they write a series of letters to me giving their reactions, raising questions, exploring their thoughts. I read the letters and respond, so we have an ongoing dialogue about it. This gives them a chance to say what they really think without exposing their ideas to anyone but me. (I initially had them use a journal format but found these responses very general. The letters brought out much more personal and individual response to the material. In future classes I may have them choose someone other than me to write to, even Ishmael himself if they want.) 2. They spend several class periods working in groups to develop lists of questions they have about Ishmael and things they learned from reading the book. These lists are written out on newsprint and become the basis for our class discussion. 3. For the final part of the assignment I ask them to write an essay, then work in peer groups to help each other with the organization and development of their ideas through several drafts. Their first drafts, peer group responses, and final papers are all turned in to me.
A. Write a well-organized and developed essay explaining a personal perspective on an environmental issue. Incorporate into the essay your readings from Ishmael, using the following format:
Basic writing; organizational skills; working together in groups; critical reading and thinking.
This final paper was my main assessment tool, but because of their letters to me I had an ongoing sense of the students' understanding of the material and their ability to communicate their ideas in writing.
Ishmael gets my students thinking. Once they suspend their disbelief and accept a thinking gorilla, they become fascinated with the ideas. Even my fundamentalist students who are Creationists enjoy the reading. They tell their friends and relatives about the book. After reading the book, one of my students said, "This is what college is supposed to be like. I'm really thinking now."
One student who had trouble with the book in the beginning (a narrator who did not have to report to a daily job bothered him almost as much as a telepathic gorilla) ultimately suspended his disbelief and in his last letter said, "I think this book is great for these times and should be mandatory for students to read." Ishmael definitely lived up to my expectations. It's perfect for college students; it inspires them to think. For freshmen it's a wonderful introduction to a liberal education. I plan on using it in my classes for the foreseeable future.