Avery Kerr
Santa Fe Secondary School
Santa Fe, New Mexico

The class and students

Santa Fe Secondary school is an independent high school with multi-graded classrooms, which offers basic subjects plus creative and expressive arts, physical exercise, and noncompetitive sports. It’s recognized by the NM State Department of Education, and we’re working toward accreditation. My co-director, Dana Rodda, and I started the school in the fall of 1994, with 24 students — two multi-graded groups of 12 each, ranging in age from 14 to 18 and in reading skills from sixth grade to college freshman.

Why Ishmael?

I chose Ishmael to begin our school year because it poses so many questions, both practical and philosophical. It deals with mankind’s origins, the memories and myths about those origins, and the progress and process of our shared experience. It also seemed an ideal book to use with our varied group of students because the language is not difficult, and the ideas and philosophies can be explored in a number of ways, from 3-D art projects to research papers.

Class activity

Everybody read Ishmael. We spent five to six weeks on it and incorporated the book into all subject areas: science (evolution), history (values and socio-political interaction), and English (vocabulary, character, the novel, etc.) (The science and history segments were taught by the school’s teachers in those fields.) Drawing on Ishmael, we defined myth and talked about the myths of the Taker culture (media and family myths). We often read articles on current issues and events (e.g Zero Population Growth) and discussed them in relation to Ishmael. For some writing assignments I asked students to respond creatively to different statements made by Ishmael. For example, “A family is like a hand,” or “Everything you need to know can be found in the library.” And, using the book, students also learned to write character sketches.


Creative writing; vocabulary; critical reading and thinking; the development of themes; discussion.


We used simple vocabulary tests, creative writing assignments, and a semester final. This was a five-page paper (approximately 1000 words) completed over several weeks, from rough draft through final paper.

Sample: Semester Final — English/Science/History

Choose two or three of the following themes: Courage/integrity/honor; Invention/creativity; Power; Friendship/family; Justice; Individuality/privacy; Nature; Religion; Education/knowledge; Survival.

Explain the relevance of these themes throughout one of the following texts: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, Hamlet by William Shakespeare.

Trace the themes through one of the following aspects of BOTH science and history: Science (evolution, biotechnology, human genome project, scientific enquiry); History (Renaissance values, Greek-Roman values, the Church, socio-economic class).

Student response

Response was mixed. Most everyone “understood” the book, but some complained that “Nothing happened !” (Ishmael is definitely not an action-adventure saga!) Some were discouraged by the vast Taker culture we are part of. Others were hopeful for change.

Summing up

I’ll use the book again in a few years when we have a new student body. But next time I’ll proceed more slowly and perhaps even divide the book into sections to explore in depth. For example, I’d explore Leaver societies that exist today and examine their systems. The book also lends itself to in-depth units that relate to our current situation on Planet Earth, and I’d suggest that students investigate some of Ishmael’s biblical, philosophical, mythical, and political references.