Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Personal Responsibility

Children are messy. In most households, parents regularly argue with their children to pick up after themselves, wash up, and clean their rooms. Though children understand that their things are supposed to be kept clean and organized, they usually don’t do the work because they just don’t value organization as much as adults do. Nonetheless, parents keep setting the example, and eventually children develop good habits. Imagine what society would be like if they didn’t. Children wouldn’t understand the importance of cleanliness and lack the organizational skills they need to be successful in school and work. So, consider the message that is sent to students who walk through a chaotic neighborhood to get to school. The burning question is this- how can we expect students to keep their classrooms clean and organized when the neighborhood is not? How do we convince our students to take personal responsibility for their actions when adults do not?

Last year I was stunned by how little respect the majority of the students at our school (even the above-level, focused students) have for their surroundings. I watched students throw candy wrappers on the floors, spill their drinks and leave the mess, and walk out of the classroom and leave balls of crumpled up paper behind. At first, I was shocked. I thought that a teacher should not have to follow up a dissection of a Shakespearian Sonnet with a reminder to throw garbage in the garbage can. After spending time in the neighborhood, I began to understand that students were modeling the behavior that they learned in their community. The classroom was a microcosm for the neighborhood, and very little value was placed on keeping it clean.

The New Explorers High School for Film and Humanities is located in the heart of the South Bronx. Many of the buildings in the South Bronx are typical New York City apartment buildings, only these are in outward states of disrepair. There are weathered, splintering tables out front, and air conditioners and a variety of flags (mostly Puerto Rican and Dominican) hanging from apartment windows. Almost everything seems loud in the Bronx- the volume of peoples’ conversations, the music in the bodegas- perhaps to compensate for the screeching metallic noises the subway makes every few minutes. Below the elevated station on the street and beneath the rusted metal subway tracks, the street is layered with a seemingly endless amount of trash that swirls around in circles on the broken sidewalk. The sidewalks are crumbling and everywhere there are signs of disrepair. There’s trash everywhere. Men spit on the ground and mothers pushing strollers casually throw empty potato chip bags on the pavement. There are few places to eat. Most of the businesses are shuttered by metal fences, and the one business that’s open in the mornings is a factory with live chickens that smells terrible, and the sidewalk out front is covered with chicken excrement.

In Good Kids From Bad Neighborhoods, Elliot found that “neighborhood quality is directly responsible for the high rates of youth crime, substance abuse, unemployment, teenage pregnancy, welfare dependence, and mental health problems that characterize many of our inner-city neighborhoods. The neighborhood is generally assumed to play an essential role in raising children, and when the strong interpersonal ties, shared socialization values and processes, and effective appropriation and utilization of community resources fail to materialize or develop in the neighborhood, children are put at risk for poor developmental outcomes and dysfunctional lifestyles” (7). Clearly, the neighborhood quality of the school affects the students.

Many students in inner-city schools struggle in their classes because they don’t make connections between their class work and the real world. We’ve all heard the arguments- school is a waste of time; why study and get a minimum wage job when I can go work for my cousin? It is crucial for teachers to make explicit, cultural connections with their students, or else students don’t see the meaning in what’s being taught. Foster has found that “educational researchers employing qualitative and ethnographic methods have enumerated many of the characteristics of teachers who work successfully with (minority) students.” She identified several common factors which include, “expressing cultural solidarity with students, linking classroom content to students’ out-of-school experiences, using familiar cultural patterns to organize classroom instruction, and incorporating culturally familiar communication patterns into classrooms” (31). But, how do teachers effectively train students to be personally responsible for their actions when they walk out the door and into real world, where it is trashed and no one’s taking personal responsibility? What happens is that students recognize their classrooms as bubbles, separate from the real world, and the skills that we’re teaching don’t carry over.

Fortunately, city officials recognize the need to develop neighborhoods. Nearby is 3rd Avenue at 149th Street where there are many recognizable chain stores- Staples, McDonalds, Rite Aid, Gamestop, Footlocker- and also many independently owned stores. This commercial strip is referred to as “the Hub” because, as stated by Commissioner Sadik-Khan, “it’s a critical commercial and transit nexus for the neighborhood-and for the borough.” In fact, city and Bronx officials have recently authorized a major pedestrian and traffic redesign of “the Hub,” which they hope will be more successful than the previous two makeover attempts, which attempted to rebrand the area as the “SoBro” and “Downtown Bronx.” Previous attempts at gentrification failed, because people weren’t buying into it. When students were asked what they thought of the attempts being made to rebrand the area, they laughed. In their words, “Yeah, they can call it whateva’ they want. It’s still da Bronx!” They might not buy into it. However, it’s still our jobs as teachers to get them to buy into the idea of personal responsibility.


Elliot, D. (2006). Good kids from bad neighborhoods. Successful Development in Social

Context, 7.

Foster, M. and Peele, T. (1999). Teaching and learning in the contexts of african

american english and culture. Education and Urban Society 1999; 31; 177. http://eus.sagepub.com

Gonzales, D. (2008, October 24). The south bronx, and proudly so. The New York


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