“Call me Ishmael,” Professor Nellick read aloud to my college English class. It was an odd sentence from the start. Who was Ishmael? The name didn’t sound American. And why would Herman Melville open a novel with this sentence? For the next two classes, our professor pressed, challenging me and my classmates to puzzle it out for ourselves.
I was soon pondering the meaning of other carefully chosen words, places, and names in Melville’s classic, Moby Dick. Why “damp, drizzly November in my soul”? Why “Queequeg” and “Pequod”? Before long, these questions brought the novel alive in my mind, and I was hooked. I changed majors from biology to English, and eventually became an English teacher myself.
Inspired by Professor Nellick’s demanding and engaging instructional approach, I have now taught Moby Dick to my high school English students for 21 years. But four years ago, I began to consider how I could make the novel even more relevant and captivating for students as my department began translating the Common Core State Standards into our school’s curriculum.
The common core challenges teachers to provide high school students with an appreciation of the foundational works of American literature. The standards’ emphasis on depth of understanding over breadth prompted me to re-evaluate how to better employ the study of language, how to enrich the reading of Moby Dick with activities that emphasize speaking and listening skills, and how I could enhance students’ understanding of Ishmael’s epic journey through more thoughtful writing assignments.
My students now marvel at how gaining familiarity with biblical and classical allusions adds layers of meaning to the novel. They work with each other to discover how Moby Dick‘s tone and themes have (and continue to) influence other genres, from LeRoy Nieman’s artwork to Elton John and Bernie Taupin’s “Hey Ahab.” They pore over the last paragraph of President Obama’s first inaugural address to explore how it relates to the novel’s ironic conclusion in which Ishmael is the only one left to tell the tale.
The common core is not education's version of Ahab's 'ungraspable phantom,' despite what some politicians would have us believe."
As a result, my teaching of Moby has become much more than an exploration of a whaling vessel named after a defeated Indian tribe, an obsessed whaling captain, and an impetuous “simple sailor.” It opens students’ eyes to the enduring power and magic of literature.
Through the Pequod’s journey on the high seas, my students begin to appreciate their own world in all of the beauty and peril, comfort and threat that Ishmael observed and Ahab cursed. Reflecting on the character qualities of the fanatical Ahab, students can gain insight into examples of real-world evil, exhibited by the likes of Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin, and Saddam Hussein, or other obsessive, paranoid individuals.
“Ignorance is the parent of fear,” Ishmael cautions readers in one passage, and that is true not only in history and literature, but too often in the petty, day-to-day skirmishing of local, state, and national politics. Sadly, in too many communities across the country, the common core is being held hostage by exactly the kind of fear Ishmael warned against.
That the common core has become a punching bag in my home state of Kansas and other places has more to do with political partisanship than reasoned review. After I spoke to a joint session of the Kansas House and Senate education committees earlier this year, I was approached by two adults armed with anti-common-core fliers. I asked them to which of the standards they objected, and neither had an answer. It wasn’t, they said, about “particular standards,” but that “the federal government is mandating them,” and “they are just too hard.” Clearly, they had no idea that the standards are not mandated by the federal government, or about the elegant and synchronous content of the English/language arts standards that build seamlessly on prior learning. And our students, in my experience, can handle the rigor.
The standards elevate the English language, invite students to discover the enduring relevance and wonder of great literature, and have improved my teaching of this classic novel. While questions about implementation and appropriate uses of the common core persist, the challenges are not insurmountable: Individual states will decide on the proper role of the common core and its aligned assessments, and the appropriate use of those assessments in evaluating teachers. The bottom line is that the common core is not education’s version of Ahab’s “ungraspable phantom,” despite what some politicians would have us believe.
We can only conquer our fears by confronting them, and every year at the beginning of the second semester, a new class winces when I hand out the thick novel. By the time I ask students to hand their copies back in at the end of the third quarter, they wince again, this time at the thought of parting with a story that has in many ways become their own.
My own love of this great novel began with an inspired and inspiring educator, and Moby Dick was a classic of American literature long before the common core existed. But the common core not only sets higher expectations for what American students can achieve, it has also helped enliven and enhance my own teaching of this important work, and likely that of other educators. It is helping to ensure that “Call me Ishmael” will resonate even more deeply with the next generation of students.
A version of this article appeared in the September 24, 2014 edition of Education Week as The Standards Are Working in My Classroom