Rob Williams
Albuquerque Academy
Albuquerque, New Mexico


The course and students

This is an interdisciplinary, teacher-driven and -planned sixth grade program with 140 students. The seven teachers have regular meetings (every other day for 45 minutes) to plan curriculum together and work out schedules. Students come to the Academy from elementary schools all over the greater Albuquerque area and are generally a bright, creative, and articulate bunch, looking for new intellectual challenges. Instead of the usual class section divisions, students form villages, clans, and lodges and operate within these groups all year. The configuration changes according to what suits the needs of a particular course or day’s work. (Two clans from different villages may meet for a special math session. Then they may join others in their village, but from different clans, for a large-group session in history.) This structure provides an enormous amount of flexibility for both teachers and students.

Why Ishmael?

We initially decided to use the book because the history teachers in the program were looking for a foundational text that connected the various components of the course — philosophy, geography, and a historical look at cultures, specifically the hunter gatherer and agricultural modes of living. Ishmael proved a natural selection and served the needs of our program in a number of ways. It was the driving force for the philosophy program for the year, but overlapped other disciplines as well — ecology, science, writing, geography, even computer class (when students had papers to write).

Class activity

Over the course of the year, from October to March (1994-95), we read the book, interspersing it with other projects and activities. We began the year with some dialogue about philosophy, defined in our program as “the love of and search for wisdom.” We then defined ourselves as a “community of philosophic inquiry,” and, together with the students, developed guidelines for engaging in philosophic dialogue with one another, talking first about the importance of effective question-asking and then about how to share ideas with one another in a constructive and respectful fashion. (See example A at the end of this narrative.) We always sat in a circle to facilitate direct eye contact and equality with one another and gradually turned over control of the class to the students, who began to moderate discussions by asking questions and drawing out important ideas, images, stories, and metaphors from the book, using a set of moderator ideas we’d developed as a guide. (See example B) By January the students were moderating all the discussions, and I only spoke up when points needed clarification or they had reached an impasse that needed outside intervention.

We read the book slowly (some students complained “too slowly”!) and trained them to read critically each portion of the text, marking their books as they did so. They looked for new and unfamiliar words, questions the author posed, major ideas of the story, powerful images or moments, marking them in appropriate ways (See example C), and included any other questions, comments, or drawings in the margin or at the end of the section. Students who showed up for class without any markings in their books were asked to leave the discussion to read critically and rejoin the discussion when finished. They soon learned the value placed on preparing their thoughts and their text ahead of time, and few were unprepared after the initial period of adjustment to our system.


Questioning; developing a community of inquiry; learning to use moderating techniques; critical reading and thinking; writing.


Classroom observation of students on a daily basis proved critical, and with the students acting as moderators, I was free to observe the class in action, noting which students asked intelligent questions, which built on the ideas of others, and which seemed “out of it.” Keeping track of students who had not read critically proved useful, though with one or two exceptions, all remained faithful to the process. We had students complete two writing assignments with the book, although having them keep a log of thoughts would have proved useful and may be tried in the future. They also engaged in a final two-day philosophical exercise in which they wrote thoughtful responses to questions on the book given to them in advance (See example D) and identified almost one hundred new vocabulary words from the book (See example E). On a more creative note, we had each student choose his or her favorite metaphor or story from the book and illustrate it by creating a two- or three-dimensional project that represented the story or metaphor and describing it in a written attachment as well. A final written reflective piece at the very end of the year summarized each student’s thoughts on the book and what he or she learned from reading it in terms of both skills and content (See example F).

We also used the ideas in the book with two group simulations (the Adapt program of the Interact Company). In this project students, in groups of four or five, imagine themselves first as leaders of a small band of hunter/gatherers and then as a small village of agriculturalists who must select a place to live on an imaginary continent, keeping in mind geographic variables and potential hazards of the continent.

Student response

The students generally enjoyed the book. Initially, many felt it to be too difficult, but the slow pace, combined with valuable classroom questioning and reflective discussion time, allowed them to air their concerns in a safe and supportive environment. Many found the critical reading process to be beneficial, while others found it too tedious. Most thought the book should be used again in sixth grade. A typical response was that of the student who thought the book contained too little plot to captivate eleven-year-olds, but also felt his thinking had been changed by the book: “Before I read Ishmael I had an empty spot in my mind, and now I can never imagine living without it.” Some students found the ideas in the book to be scary, but dealing with the notion of a society that might self-destruct if its excesses aren’t checked is very much on young people’s minds. Every once in a while I let students just talk about how they felt about the book itself, rather than having them always fleshing out the ideas. This seemed to work well.

Summing up

I was pleased with how deeply the students got into the book, and I would certainly use it again in a sixth grade class. I’d have the students do more writing (probably in a journal-type format) about their reactions to Ishmael. I’d also hold them more accountable for vocabulary: rather than giving them a final vocabulary exercise, I’d incorporate the new words into our discussions on a more regular basis. I’d recommend balancing the critical reading component for the philosophical sections of the book with regular reading for the sections of plot — a technique I’ll try in the future.

The daily moderating process was remarkable. Sixth graders are a creative bunch, and my students really took the opportunity to create some engaging classroom dialogues as moderators, using either the techniques I suggested or the ones they created themselves. Any opportunity to provide them with a creative outlet for the ideas in the book proved useful. We even got the students together with a class of twelfth graders who had read the book, and they put together a full-length film version of their interpretation of the book. Very cool!

There are all kinds of ways to spin off the ideas in the text (ecology, media studies and literacy, ancient history, current events, etc.). I’d advise going slowly at first, and laying the philosophical groundwork. I found that students this young needed to be reminded continually of their responsibilities to the text and to each other. But they soon found that learning from one another is both challenging and fun, and I was rewarded by realizing that I’d empowered these students to be independent learners — certainly a worthwhile goal. Ishmael is of great significance in raising challenging and provocative questions about our own culture, where we’ve been, and where we’re headed. Thus, it’s an important book.

(In their original form, each of the following examples was a sheet of one or more pages. We’ve condensed — and in some cases abridged — them because of space limitations. But because these students are the youngest we know of using Ishmael, we wanted to give you most of the actual material used with the class. ED.)

A: Student-generated Discussion Guidelines

(The class wrote these guidelines on poster board, which we kept on display in the center of our circle as a reminder of our responsibilities to one another.)


  1. RESPECTS the ideas of others;
  2. ASKS effective questions;
  3. REFERS to the text, early and often;
  4. LISTENS actively to the discussion;
  5. BUILDS ON the ideas of others, even when disagreeing;
  6. LEAVES if unwilling or unable to participate.

B: Moderator Ideas Sheet

Here are some ideas you can use as moderator for any discussion (including class discussions on Ishmael). Feel free to create your own ideas and add them to the list. Remember, an effective moderator steers a discussion and helps the class get the gist of the reading but talks as little as possible. Always (!) sit in a circle: doing so fosters eye contact, equality, and respect for each other.

  1. In advance, develop one or two open-ended questions based on the reading. Write them on the board and spend the class discussing them.
  2. At the beginning of class, assign each person a page or two, and ask them to select the word, phrase, sentence, concept, or idea that is most important on that page, and write it on the board. Then discuss as a class.
  3. At the beginning of class, divide the class up into smaller groups and continue with #1 or #2 above. If you have time, bring the smaller groups together for a large group debriefing during the second half of the class.
  4. Have individuals or small groups develop their own questions, based on the reading. Write them on the board and then discuss them as a class.
  5. Give the class a few minutes to collect thoughts, then randomly ask individuals to share their own perspective on the reading. You can determine which questions you want to follow up on, and which you want to “let sit” for awhile.
  6. Go around the circle, and, with no one interrupting, have each person share a thought on the reading. Then, after everyone has spoken, open it up for discussion.
  7. In advance, select one or more significant quotations from the reading. Write them on the board and discuss them.
  8. In advance, select key concepts or ideas from the reading. Write them on the board and give members of the class a few minutes to illustrate them. Then discuss.
  9. Create your own moderating scenario.

C: Thoughts on Reading Critically

Reading critically demands that we pay attention to our level of engagement in a text. Rather than pleasure reading (which has its own importance), critical reading requires more energy. Below you will find several useful steps that will enable you to become a more effective critical reader. Internalize this process so that it becomes part of your learning.

A Suggested Five-Step Process

  1. Find a comfortable place to read. It must be relatively quiet and allow you to write easily in the text. (Beds may be great, but they induce sleep.)
  2. Find a writing implement — a pen or a pencil. (Highlighters do not allow for writing in the text.)
  3. Read the text slowly and careful, allowing yourself time to stop and reflect on what’s being said and how it’s being said.
  4. Read the text again, with pen or pencil in hand: a. Draw a box around any words that are new to you and define the word in the margin, using a dictionary if needed. b. Underline any major ideas or points you feel the author is trying to make. c. Place a “Q” in the margin next to questions the author raises. c. Place a star next to descriptive images or intriguing phrases that grab you. d. Finally, write your own questions and comments in the margin.
  5. Gather your thoughts together for class discussion.

D: Ishmael Final: Written Philosophical Exercise

Greetings, fellow philosopher. You will be participating in an Ishmael final that will consist of two parts: 1. Correctly identifying philosophical vocabulary from the book (one class). 2. Discussing essential questions from the book (one class). In an effort to help you, I am providing you with both the “essential questions” and the vocabulary below. I will choose one of the questions, and you will choose two of them. You will write on all three during one class period. Please be as specific as possible, using examples from the book when necessary.

  1. Discuss, specifically, the various roles of Ishmael and the narrator in the book. What philosophical and metaphorical purposes do each of them serve?
  2. As fully as you can, explain what Ishmael means by “Mother Culture,” and “her” relationship to us as individuals.
  3. Explain and discuss the meaning of THREE of the following stories: a. the jellyfish story; b. The Taker Thunderbolt; c. Cain and Abel; 4. The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil; 5. The story of Ishmael (Old Testament)
  4. According to Ishmael, what three specific ingredients make up a culture? Which of the three do you think is most important?
  5. Discuss FOUR important difference between Leaver cultures and Taker cultures, according to the book. (You may want to provide specific examples of the two cultures in your answer.)
  6. Explain the historic importance of our agricultural revolution, according to Ishmael. How, specifically, did it change society?
  7. Toward the end of the book, the narrator says that people “need a vision of the world and of themselves that inspires them.” What are the specific ingredients of that vision, according to Ishmael and the narrator?

E: Ishmael Vocabulary Final Exercise

(Only five of the original fifty quotes from the book are given here, as a sample. ED.)

Directions: Identify the meaning of each of the underlined words in the sentences below, in a few words or less. Use your knowledge of the words and the context of the sentence to help you! Good luck, fellow philosopher.

  1. “Takers believe in their revolution, even when they enjoy none of its benefits. There are no grumblers, no dissidents, no counter revolutionaries.”
  2. “According to your maps, the world of thought is coterminous with your culture.”
  3. “As an omnivore, his dietary range is immense.”
  4. “With agriculture, those limitations vanished, and his rise was meteoric.”
  5. “It’s another case where diversity seems to work better than homogeneity.”

F: Ishmael Final Reflection

What a year it has been with this text! I am proud of your hard work and effort in reading such a challenging and provocative work. You taught me many things! I need your constructive feedback on using this book in a sixth grade program. In reflecting on your relationship with the book, please consider the following: the critical reading process, class discussions in philosophy, the moderating process, writing (the letter to Daniel Quinn, the two-day in-class final), the film-making project, and any other activities or experiences associated with the book.

  1. In reading Ishmael, what did you learn: a. about yourself? b. about the world? c. about learning?
  2. What do you feel are the most important themes in Ishmael?
  3. Describe your most favorite and your least favorite Ishmael activity and why you chose each.
  4. Would you recommend this book to other readers your age? Why or why not? Should it be taught in the sixth grade next year? Why or why not?