Spoken Word: Teens Define Responsibility

Defining Responsibility

My ultimate goal as a teacher was to turn teens on to themselves and to guide each of them to their own unique value in this world. One of the paths that I chose to accomplish this was through the texts that we explored.

In my last post, I illustrated how each of the “four obstacles” that Paulo Coelho expresses in his book, The Alchemist , could be applied to our own lives. One of the other books that I loved to teach from was Into The Wild, by Jon Krakauer, as I found that the themes and life lessons expressed within would be of much value to my 11th and 12th grade students.

One of the major themes I cover while teaching Into The Wild is that of Responsibility. Inevitably the class breaks into two factions: those who believe that the protagonist, Christopher McCandless, died on his journey in Alaska because he was irresponsible and reckless, and those who admire him for his courage and independent nature and blame his death simply on an unfortunate accident.

Trying to get teenagers to speak effectively on topics that they are passionate about can be quite the task, as they tend to simply rant narrow-mindedly about their viewpoint without any real meaty substance to support their opinion. In all discussions, I take the middle ground, many times playing devil’s advocate while instigating arguments for both sides of the coin. Especially when it comes to discussing their thoughts on “responsibility”, I try to get them to think deeper than their surface level which is mostly made up of ideals they’ve learned from their parents or peers, or their stubborn denouncements of those very ideals.

Today during this class discussion, all of the above is being highlighted, and the volume is getting louder and the voices more animated by the minute.

In a brief moment of regrouping, one of my students raises her hand.

“What exactly does responsibility mean, anyway?” she asks. “I mean, who’s to say that what you deem responsible I won’t deem careless. For example, I’m sure that Chris believed that he was being responsible as he trekked out into the wild of Alaska alone, but I just think he was ignorant to the power of nature and was simply gambling with his life. So, how do we truly define responsibility?”

These are the moments that I relish, when the student becomes the teacher.

“How many of you define responsibility with a positive connotation?” I ask.

Out of fifteen students, only three have their hands raised.

This brings us to the next question.

“For those of you not raising your hands, why do you view responsibility as a negative ideal?”

In an instant, hands shoot into the air…

“My parents are always harping on me to be more responsible, but they don’t really have room to talk since they cheated on each other and are getting divorced.”

“My dad is always working, he’s never home, but he grounds me if I’m ten minutes late for curfew.”

“My parents expect straight A’s and make me feel worthless if I bring home a B.”

“The school gives us standardized tests to determine whether we’re responsible enough to go to a good college, but I suck at timed tests, so where does that leave me?”

They’re right to feel confused by this word, but I tell them that these are the very examples that will help us to define responsibility for ourselves.

But the definition can only be our own. If we live solely to others’ standards and definitions then, more often than not, we’ll be disappointed with ourselves. Maybe even feel “less than” or “worthless”, or “irresponsible” without ever even understanding why.

I have them write creatively on the theme of responsibility. Some present poetry filled with descriptive imagery, others brief short stories both fictional and true, and one student even creates a picture book using illustrations to express her understanding.

A week later we return to the discussion of Chris McCandless, and now their emotions are more tempered, their viewpoints more thoughtful, and most of them have gained a more balanced understanding of the theme from their once polarized ideals.

Regarding their judgment of the protagonist, and their ability to express themselves effectively, I believe they have become more responsible.


Jeff Winston ♦ Teaching Teens: Lessons I’ve Learned in the High School Classroom

Jeff Winston writes our monthly column, Teaching Teens: Lessons I’ve Learned in the High School Classroom, illustrating the life lessons that he taught, and just as often learned, both in and out of the classroom. Jeff has lived in Easthampton since 2007, after moving up from Philadelphia with his wife, Alli, and their 3 dogs, Murphy, Zoey and Maggie. Jeff has a private tutoring business, Tap Your Truth, specific to enhancing writing and study skills, focusing on empowering individuals through their own written and spoken words. Jeff writes a blog called Better Out Than In…, a place to read creative expressions of his life’s experiences, samples of his student’s work, and tidbits that will enable readers to gain insight into their own lives.

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