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The Ishmael Companion
Beyond Civilization
 Study Guide

  Ishmael Community: The Ishmael Companion -- World Civilizations (Grades 7-9)

World Civilizations (Grades 7-9)

    Stephen Myers
    Traveling School International
    1021 Cayuga St.
    Santa Cruz, CA 95062

    The course and students

    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.

    The course and students

    This is a full-year course with 10-12 senior high students. The major portion of the class is a two- or three- month visit to another country, usually in late winter/early spring. We stay with families and also spend some time touring. Students attend classes in the country we visit, but also have class with me at other times, and I teach classes in an exchange program. Where we go varies from year to year. South Africa, Zimbabwe, Kenya, Thailand, Australia, India, Ireland, Indonesia, England, and Malaysia are some of the countries we've visited. We study the culture of the country before we go, and read Ishmael to provide a context for that study.

    Class activity

    In this class we focus more on debate and discussion than in World Civilizations, and students usually write four or five essays during the four weeks we spend on Ishmael. When we read the book depends on the class. Generally, I assign it before we travel, but the most recent group wasn't ready for it, so we went to Zimbabwe first and experienced the culture. When we returned, students were able to read Ishmael and relate its ideas to what they had personally seen and felt and learned in Africa. Because they had seen Great Zimbabwe (the ancient stone ruins from which the country takes its name) and learned about its history firsthand, they could write about it in relation to ideas in Ishmael with greater understanding.

    Sample: Essay Assignments:

    1. Write a paper from the Takers' point of view telling the story of Great Zimbabwe; then write it from the Leavers' point of view.
    2. Based on the projections described in the book, write a history of the world for the next five decades. Make up events that are consistent with the point of view you adopt (the cynics generally adopt a Taker point of view.)
    3. You're a politician transformed by reading Ishmael. What laws would you enact in order to turn things around?


    Critical thinking; writing; vocabulary; debating; understanding and appreciating cultural diversity.


    In addition to the essays and regular exams, I give them a questionnaire to help them assess their own work.

    Student response

    The students like the book, though sometimes they think it's weird. (Older kids sometimes have trouble buying into a telepathic ape, but they get past that when we look at it as a lesson in metaphor.) It validates students' point of view about what's wrong with the world and more or less reinforces their own idealism. It also sustains their motivation. Sometimes they get annoyed because they think the student in the book is so willingly led. Then when they see the love that grows between the two characters, they shift and become sympathetic.

    Summing up

    I've been using Ishmael since 1992, and I'll certainly continue to do so. (It's used in our science department as well. The ecology teacher discusses habitats and niches and what would happen if something on the food chain were eliminated. So Ishmael creates a macro view of ecology.) When we travel I'd like to present Ishmael when I teach in other classes to see how students react (in South Africa, for example). I think it might be very different for them.

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