Stephen Myers
Traveling School International
Santa Cruz, California

The course and students: World Civilizations

The school is a comprehensive junior/senior high (grades 6-12), nonprofit, private school averaging 35 students. We educate students to be global citizens through travel and international exchange programs combined with a comprehensive academic course of studies. Most students are highly motivated and college-track. World Civilizations has about 10-12 students, and we study both past and present civilizations.

Why Ishmael?

I use Ishmael in both World Civilizations and World Cultures because it provides my students with a context for their study. The book challenges the traditional point of view, which defines progress as human beings building, controlling, and conquering nature. Ishmael gives an alternative interpretation. This encourages students to rethink their definitions of civilization and of progress.

Class activity

We read Ishmael at the start of the course, over a period of about five weeks, using a combination of methods. Sometimes I have them read aloud in class and sometimes on their own or in reading groups. I also have parents get together with a group and read with them. (Parents come in several times a week and work with the students. It works well, and they all like doing it.) I’ve also used the audio tape of Ishmael. Although it’s condensed (cut nearly in half to fit 180-minute format, ED.), it gives a good overview. Whether or not I use the tape depends on the class. If they find the text too daunting, listening to the tape helps them get started. Or I might use at it the end as a summary.

I have a group of students take a civilization and analyze it in terms of both the contemporary, common point of view and then from Ishmael‘s point of view. Once they’ve read Ishmael, they reconsider what is the criterion of a civilized society. They discuss this in groups and then make a presentation to the class. (A lot of what comes out is new ways to design laws to protect the environment and prevent growth.)

Many of the things we do are related to what comes up in class, what their questions are, what they’re ready for. I structure the class to allow this and stay alert to their interest and readiness. Each class is different.


Critical thinking; vocabulary (I have the students make lists of words that are foreign to them and then we discuss them.); knowledge of history (When an event or place is mentioned in the text I may ask students to do some research. For example, in one section Ishmael talks about the Tigris/Euphrates area. This opens up a conversation with the students: Do you know what this is, where this is, and what he’s talking about? Then they research that area.); writing (Especially dialogue. When Ishmael talks, he has a special tone. Sometimes it’s condescending, sometimes compassionate, sometimes exasperated. We discuss what is being used to create that kind of tone or feeling. I then ask students to try to write their own dialogue creating a specific tone they have in mind.)


I give quick little quizzes each day to see if they understand the content and have them write a couple of essays to see if they’re getting the concepts. There might be a final test, usually a group test (we do nearly everything in groups), where they’ll have to take a position and defend it using the book as a back-up. They can attack or support a thesis, but they must show that they have used material from the book. They may also use other sources.

Student response

It’s somewhere between fascination and confusion. They’re fascinated with the ideas, and enthralled, but they’re confused about coming to terms with a new idea and what it might mean for them. This group is young and some of the concepts in the book are difficult.

Summing up

Some of the younger students get bogged down in the reading and get more out of listening, so I’ve considered using just the audio tape for them. I might supplement the tape with some reading from the book. For example, the history lessons are not on the tape, so I might read some of those to the class. Our school spends a lot of time traveling and studying different places. I find that Ishmael relates not just to social sciences but to the way we live and relate to one another, and it helps students understand their own behavioral dynamics more clearly.