Isobel Stevenson
Johnston High School
Austin, Texas

The course and students

This is an honors course and the introductory social studies class for students at the Liberal Arts Academy, a magnet program at Johnston High School. There are five sections for approximately 125 students. I wrote the course and teach two sections.

Why Ishmael?

One of the main things I want my students to learn is to challenge assumptions. Traditional textbooks present facts as they are understood, but they rarely, if ever, give students any idea of how we came to think a certain way. But Ishmael challenges those assumptions and provides a new way of looking at the familiar.

Class activity

The course is issues-based rather than being region-based as most geography courses are. I put emphasis on having models to describe and predict geographical events. The students, therefore, must master some difficult concepts, such as the global circulation of the atmosphere, the demographic transition model, and the species-area curve. During the fall semester we study physical systems, resources and economic development, population, and food, farming, and famine. In the spring we cover endangered species, natural hazards, water, and energy.

We start reading Ishmael at the beginning of the spring semester, as a complement to the endangered species unit, though we are halfway through the semester by the time they’ve done all that I assign on the book. I don’t require students to finish reading it, but most of them do. We have class discussions, and they make responses in the journal they keep for the whole course. We’ve watched a video on how zoos help endangered species and students then contrasted that assumption with what Ishmael says about zoos.


The skill I’m really looking for in having the students read Ishmael is close reading of text. By that I mean that they will be able to extract a line of argument from text and cite evidence for their answers. For example, they take the jellyfish account of creation, show how the author builds his argument, and cite evidence from the text to support that argument.


I ask students to respond to questions based on the reading assigned over a two-week period. These are open-ended questions, with no right answers, so I grade on the basis of the reasons students give for their responses. Here are some of the things I ask them to consider.

Sample: Open-ended Questions

  1. What does Ishmael think of zoos? How does that compare with what your research on saving endangered species tells you?
  2. How does Ishmael illustrate the difference between anthropocentrism and biocentrism?
  3. Why did the author choose a gorilla and not a cockroach?
  4. What does the jellyfish story tell you?
  5. What do you think of the “tricks” Ishmael talks about?

Student response

The students really like Ishmael. Reading it was easily the most popular thing we did all year, in terms of projects that took longer than a day or two to complete.

Summing up

I’m delighted with the way our use of Ishmael worked out. I’ve used it for two years now and don’t anticipate making any changes in the third. I’d caution teachers to distance themselves from the views in the book, since some may be at odds with values students and their families hold. (This especially true of the jellyfish story of creation and the chapters on the Middle East.)