Environmental Studies is a junior-senior elective course I initiated two years ago. It's an honors class, but credit is given only if two semesters are completed (mainly because of a year-long major project). The number of students varies each year from 24 to 33.
I called the class Environmental Studies rather than Environmental Science because I didn't want to be limited by the accepted traditions or approaches in teaching a science class. I wanted the latitude to teach the course in an interdisciplinary manner, incorporating philosophy, psychology, art, music, writing, literature, and multicultural perspectives. My justification for this is that to understand
the environment and the human relationship to the earth, science seems too limiting. I also wanted to offer an alternative to students interested in taking more than the required two years of science -- those who might be intimidated by the traditional chemistry-physics route or didn't want to follow it.
A friend gave me the book in 1993, and after reading it through in practically one sitting, I knew it was THE book I'd been looking for to use in my class. Wanting to introduce a keystone work of environmental literature to my students, I had tried using Silent Spring, but found they got bogged down in the technical aspects and missed much of the big message. Ishmael, on the other hand, is short and fairly easy to read at one level, and because of the Socratic format of the conversation between Ishmael and the narrator, it would lend itself perfectly to the Socratic Seminar format of discussing literature I wanted to use. I also intuitively felt the kids would like the book because it's so nontraditional. (What? The whole book is a conversation between a gorilla and a man?) It leads so methodically and smoothly into many important discoveries of our behavior and how we relate to the earth and raises many essential questions about the human role on earth -- timely and important ideas among thinking adolescents.
Mainly, I wanted a book that would generate discussions in which everyone could have something to talk about. That's the magic of Ishmael. Everyone can relate to it. No matter the culture, gender, economic, or religious background.
Most of the third quarter of my class is dedicated to reading Ishmael, using the Socratic Seminar Format developed by Michael D. Strong.
Academic: reading, speaking, listening, critical thinking; Social: teamwork, sensitivity, good manners; Personal: honesty, willingness to accept criticism, responsibility, initiative.
As a final assessment I ask students to demonstrate their understanding of the differences between Leavers and Takers. This demonstration is to be presented to the class and can be in the form of poetry, music, a series of photographs, a video, paintings, sculpture, posters, or a report. I love to see what my students come up with. The work they produce for this assignment is generally of high quality because they're motivated to put so much of themselves into it.
They're overwhelmingly positive. Many want to buy their copies of the book when they're through reading it in class. Many buy more copies for friends and relatives. This is a rather unusual phenomenon at the high school level. (One student bought the book for her mother and father and led them in Socratic Seminars on Ishmael at home. She was a potential drop-out the previous year, but she's been academically successful ever since.) I've had students tell me that Ishmael is the first book they wanted to read from cover to cover. English teachers have told me that students have magically become interested in literature all of a sudden! One English teacher wondered what in the world a science teacher was doing discussing and reading literature in a science class!
Juniors and seniors seem to really like the Socratic Seminar format. They also have enough maturity to handle some of the more controversial aspects of the book. If you plan to use the book in this format, I'd suggest reading it a couple of times first and deciding ahead of time where your discussion points will be each day. Having a list of already prepared questions each day helps things go more smoothly at first, but don't be afraid to be spontaneous. Be prepared for some emotional discussion! A lot of personal "stuff" comes out as students explore their own values.
When I discovered that my students were well versed in Taker culture but knew very little about Leaver culture, I assigned Marlo Morgan's book Mutant Message Downunder. It's a short, easy-to-read book about the Australian Aborigines (though there's some controversy about whether it's fiction or fact). It gives the reader a glimpse into a different mode of human operation that my students found very interesting and made a great follow-up to Ishmael.