meeting students where they are


This post concerns an encouragement I have been hearing over the past several years: let’s be sure to meet students “where they are.”  I tend to translate this suggestion in terms of technological tools.  Working with the digital natives of today, I should push myself to find points of contact and types of  exercises that use today’s technology because the teenagers are using it to to communicate with each other and the world at large.

Recently I have been exploring another way to translate the phrase “where they are”–namely the students’ emotional location.  Tools are valuable, and they evolve over time.  The astute teacher watches these developments and adapts the tools that have the greatest potential.  At the same time, however, I don’t want to neglect a core part of people young and old.

For example, seniors in my classes have begun reading Hamlet.  A student asked me why I had assigned them to memorize and speak before an audience Hamlet’s response to his mother, “Seems Madam?”  This student wondered if other schools around the country asked students to do this.  She followed up with “Is this a popular or well-known speech?”   I told her that I thought the emotional content of the speech would resonate with her and her classmates.  The speech, as I read it, scornfully laments to Hamlet’s mother: you don’t understand me.

A close friend visited our home recently.  As we were talking about writing and education, I said that one idea underlying my writing instruction is that teenagers feel this need to be understood by their parents and other adults.  Have you ever felt as if people do not understand you as well as you want?  I carry this question in my mind as I work with students and their writing.  I want them to feel more capable in expressing themselves and their feelings.

For this and other reasons,  I ask seniors to memorize these eleven lines from Shakespeare’s play:

Seems madam?  nay it is, I know not seems.

‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,

Nor customary suits of solemn black,

Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,

No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,

Nor the dejected haviour of the visage,

Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,

That can denote me truly.  These indeed seem,

For they are actions that a man might play,

But I have that within which passes show —

These but the trappings and the suits of woe.



Then I happened to read a “By the Book” interview with Gabrielle Hamilton (NYTimes BK Rev 23 Nov 2014: 8), in which she answers the question, “What book did you feel you were supposed to like, and didn’t?”  Hamilton’s response: “Some of those great books do not become available or apparent to you until you are ready to receive them.”

In other words, part of my job is to help high school seniors be ready to receive Hamlet the character.  Instead of  wanting to meet students “where they are,” I want them to meet Hamlet where he is, which, emotionally speaking, is closer to their experience than they or others may realize.  I told this year’s seniors that before they graduate, I would like them to meet a friend of mine.  His name is Hamlet, and he has taught me a lot over the years.  I value this relationship, as it has evolved over time.


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Filed under challenge, expression, reasons for writing

2 responses to “meeting students where they are

  1. Wendy

    Thank you so much for sharing this lovely post, Bill! You’re such an inspiring figure 🙂 I’m not sure how best to do this in my own classroom, but now, at least, I’m thinking about it!

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