Michael Read
Stephen F. Austin High School
Austin, Texas

The course and students

This is an honors course of freshmen and sophomores. This year I’m teaching four sections, with about 35 students in each. Since the school is located centrally, it draws a pretty mixed group of students, from all parts of the city. Reading levels of this class range from the 60th to 90th percentile.

Why Ishmael?

I knew as soon as I read Ishmael that it was an important book I had to share with my students. For World History, especially, it offers an overview of how we got where we are today that helps students see the whole picture. Because I was so excited by the book, I figured my students would be too. (I also use it with my Humanities elective for gifted and talented juniors and seniors. I use it as a jumping off point for comparison of Western and Eastern Civilization because the issues raised are philosophical, and it gives the students a different point of view.)

Class activity

I’ve been using Ishmael for the past three years and have tried out different things. Some have worked, others I’ve tossed out. But I always assign the book at the beginning of the year, before I even hand out the textbook, so they start right out realizing that there is another point of view. They get a sense of the Leaver story as a basis for the rest of their study of world history. We spend about three weeks of class on Ishmael, then go on to the text. But throughout the year I refer the students back to the book. We talk about what Ishmael would say about the issues we’re discussing. This year, for the first time, I assigned only about 20 pages of the book each night and asked them to write out five questions about the material. This worked much better than what I’d done previously (assigning whole sections, which sometimes ran to 60 pages). Teaching style is crucial to understanding with this book. Mine is Socratic, so I when I make an assignment I tell students to come in with their questions, for me and for each other. I also generate questions, and each day in class we set up a dialogue around a body of information.


Critical thinking is my focus. The two things I feel they should learn in this course are to view a body of work critically and to see that there are different points of view.


I give some quizzes but mainly just include questions on Ishmael as part of ordinary testing for class. One essay question, for example, asked them to give three different interpretations of the koan that appears on Ishmael’s poster.

Student response

Some have trouble with the idea of a gorilla that communicates telepathically, and one class couldn’t get past it. Most are very positive and come away with the sense that they can make a difference in the world. One student who was in my class as a freshman read Ishmael again on his own as a senior. He got something completely different out of it as a more mature reader and understood it better. Quite a few ask if they can take the book home to their parents to read, and it becomes family dinner table talk.

Summing up

This is a book that can be used all through the study of World History, even after the few weeks of formal study of Ishmael are over. Bringing it back in throughout the course helps students step back from events in history and evaluate them. I’d advise other teachers to teach it as a work of philosophy rather than as a novel and to break it up into small assignments. I rushed through it to meet the curriculum, but now I’d use Ishmael and The Republic and throw everything else away. ( A cautionary note: don’t get hung up on the Genesis stories if they’re troubling for some of your students. Deal with them and move on; sometimes I don’t even talk about them, depending on the class.)