Stacy Studebaker
Kodiak High School
Kodiak, Alaska

The course and students

Environmental Studies is a junior-senior elective course I initiated two years ago. It’s an honors class, but credit is given only if two semesters are completed (mainly because of a year-long major project). The number of students varies each year from 24 to 33.

I called the class Environmental Studies rather than Environmental Science because I didn’t want to be limited by the accepted traditions or approaches in teaching a science class. I wanted the latitude to teach the course in an interdisciplinary manner, incorporating philosophy, psychology, art, music, writing, literature, and multicultural perspectives. My justification for this is that to understand the environment and the human relationship to the earth, science seems too limiting. I also wanted to offer an alternative to students interested in taking more than the required two years of science — those who might be intimidated by the traditional chemistry-physics route or didn’t want to follow it.

Why Ishmael?

A friend gave me the book in 1993, and after reading it through in practically one sitting, I knew it was THE book I’d been looking for to use in my class. Wanting to introduce a keystone work of environmental literature to my students, I had tried using Silent Spring, but found they got bogged down in the technical aspects and missed much of the big message. Ishmael, on the other hand, is short and fairly easy to read at one level, and because of the Socratic format of the conversation between Ishmael and the narrator, it would lend itself perfectly to the Socratic Seminar format of discussing literature I wanted to use. I also intuitively felt the kids would like the book because it’s so nontraditional. (What? The whole book is a conversation between a gorilla and a man?) It leads so methodically and smoothly into many important discoveries of our behavior and how we relate to the earth and raises many essential questions about the human role on earth — timely and important ideas among thinking adolescents.

Mainly, I wanted a book that would generate discussions in which everyone could have something to talk about. That’s the magic of Ishmael. Everyone can relate to it. No matter the culture, gender, economic, or religious background.

Class activity

Most of the third quarter of my class is dedicated to reading Ishmael, using the Socratic Seminar Format developed by Michael D. Strong.

Sample: Socratic Seminar Format

  1. We all sit around the edge of one big circle; everyone has a copy of Ishmael and a notebook to jot down ideas or questions.
  2. All I tell my students about the book beforehand is that it’s a book about how people relate to the environment. I also tell them that there are two groups of people in the book, the Leavers and the Takers. Their job is to learn as much as they can about these two kinds of people for their final assessment project.
  3. One student volunteers to begin the reading out loud. Each student reads a page aloud while the others follow along in their copy. We go around the circle reading aloud until we get to a place in the book that I have previously decided is a good place to ask some questions that will generate a discussion. I have my questions written down in front of me, but more always come up during the discussions.
  4. We stop reading, and I begin with a question. The only rules for the discussion are: raise your hand before you speak, give the speaker your full attention, everyone’s opinion is valid, no put-downs, everyone should share their thoughts.
  5. My role is to ask questions that will spark discussion. I stay pretty neutral and don’t provide answers to the questions. I clarify now and then, try to keep the discussion on track, and give necessary background information. I call on shy students to get them involved or sometimes guide the discussion a little by asking a series of questions. I keep a check list in front of me with the names of the students and keep a record of how many times each student speaks. This helps me know which students need more encouragement.
  6. We always have a dictionary or two in the circle to look up unfamiliar words. Students keep a list of new vocabulary words and definitions.
  7. At the end of each seminar (class period) we do a debriefing. We go around the circle, and every student says something about the reading or discussions that day. I then assign a one-paragraph reaction that is due the next day. (I usually get more than one paragraph.) Each day, we begin where we left off the previous day.
  8. When we finish the book, at the end of the quarter, the group has really bonded! They have shared much of themselves and explored new territory within. They have touched on and refined some of their primary values. They have developed more self-confidence through expressing and discussing their ideas and values. They have learned to respect the opinions of others and have experienced the power and stimulation of collective intellectual inquiry.


Academic: reading, speaking, listening, critical thinking; Social: teamwork, sensitivity, good manners; Personal: honesty, willingness to accept criticism, responsibility, initiative.


As a final assessment I ask students to demonstrate their understanding of the differences between Leavers and Takers. This demonstration is to be presented to the class and can be in the form of poetry, music, a series of photographs, a video, paintings, sculpture, posters, or a report. I love to see what my students come up with. The work they produce for this assignment is generally of high quality because they’re motivated to put so much of themselves into it.

Student response

They’re overwhelmingly positive. Many want to buy their copies of the book when they’re through reading it in class. Many buy more copies for friends and relatives. This is a rather unusual phenomenon at the high school level. (One student bought the book for her mother and father and led them in Socratic Seminars on Ishmael at home. She was a potential drop-out the previous year, but she’s been academically successful ever since.) I’ve had students tell me that Ishmael is the first book they wanted to read from cover to cover. English teachers have told me that students have magically become interested in literature all of a sudden! One English teacher wondered what in the world a science teacher was doing discussing and reading literature in a science class!

Summing up

Juniors and seniors seem to really like the Socratic Seminar format. They also have enough maturity to handle some of the more controversial aspects of the book. If you plan to use the book in this format, I’d suggest reading it a couple of times first and deciding ahead of time where your discussion points will be each day. Having a list of already prepared questions each day helps things go more smoothly at first, but don’t be afraid to be spontaneous. Be prepared for some emotional discussion! A lot of personal “stuff” comes out as students explore their own values.

When I discovered that my students were well versed in Taker culture but knew very little about Leaver culture, I assigned Marlo Morgan’s book Mutant Message Downunder. It’s a short, easy-to-read book about the Australian Aborigines (though there’s some controversy about whether it’s fiction or fact). It gives the reader a glimpse into a different mode of human operation that my students found very interesting and made a great follow-up to Ishmael.