Scott Sauter
Blue Mountain Union School
Wells River, Vermont

The course and students

I teach everything from algebra through calculus in a small rural town in Vermont. Two years ago our daily schedule was changed to accommodate a science lab conflict. The net effect was to take our typical 43-minute block of time and make one block into a 60-minute period. We were told by the administration that we could do anything we wanted with the extra time added to this period. Most teachers chose to use it as a study hall or project period, but I decided to turn the extra time into a read-aloud period à la Jim Trelease in his The Read-Aloud Handbook. So 29 sophomores, juniors, and seniors became listeners for the last 17 minutes of our Algebra II class each day. I began by reading The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter.

Why Ishmael?

When I learned that teachers in other schools were using Ishmael in the classroom, I decided to give it a try. I had been so impressed with the book when I read it, I felt that if even one student came away understanding the book’s message, it would be worth it.

Class activity

I read and the students listened. They were not held accountable for the books we read, and they didn’t know quite what to make of that. (What? No tests. No papers. Why listen?) I believe, without exception, the entire class was quickly attending to the story at hand. At the end of each book we had a brief discussion. By December, when we had read several books, we all looked forward to the last segment of our math class with relish.

The reading of Ishmael went quite well overall, though it was hard to keep the continuity of its arguments clear in 17-minute snatches. I found myself explaining and re-explaining the argument at hand. I tried to engage the listeners at times by taking Ishmael’s questions and posing them to the class. I also brought articles from the newspaper to help show examples of Mother Culture buzzing away. (e.g. statistics on world population, articles on bio-engineering and endangered species.) Things got a bit “hot” in the section of the book with references to the biblical creation story. One mother came in very concerned that I had chosen this book to read. But when I offered to loan her a copy to read herself, she wasn’t interested.

Student response

One of the direct spinoffs of reading Ishmael came just as we were finishing the book. Our school found itself in the midst of an environmental crisis. The air quality of the school was tested and found unfit. Five students from the Ishmael class came to me asking what action they could take. We decide to form a student action group, which we called Student Advocates For the Environment (S.A.F.E). Our motto was “Be Part of the Solution.”

Since it began a year ago this group has established a recycling program at our school (more than 6000 pounds of trash in the first five months of school); built composting bins and composted school cafeteria food scraps, which are used on school flower beds and for the elementary school’s indoor tomato-growing project; raised money to buy five acres of rain forest in the Children’s Rain forest in Costa Rica; made a proposal for the three towns that attend our union school to start a recycling station (our modified proposal has recently been accepted by the three towns and should be in operation soon); sent teams of high school students into the elementary school to teach lessons on recycling; and raised money to send five students to Costa Rica during spring vacation to visit the Children’s Rain forest.

Summing up

I was amazed at the number of students who were thoroughly engaged during the reading of Ishmael. I would estimate that a third of them were right with me throughout the book. Another third were with me most of the time, and the rest were in and out. (Attendance played a part in losing some of this last group.) Overall, I was amazed and pleased with the interest. I’ve been reading Ishmael again during the same period this year, and so far the response has been similar, very favorable. One student (who struggled academically throughout his school career) went out and bought his own copy of the book because we were reading too slowly for him in class. I gave the book to my brother-in-law, also a teacher. He gave it to a student he thought might like it. The student (a reluctant reader) came back to him and said, “Where did you get this book? I didn’t know there were books like this!” That student is now turning his friends on to the book.