I’d ask my Thought Leaders about rape, but they’re not talking

Last night, I had the privilege to be on a Twitter chat about Ferguson (h/t to @JessLifTeach).  It wasn’t the only tweetchat about the topic by any means, and I was glad to see a group of teachers talking about what they can do to talk to or teach their students about what has been going on.  Ferguson has come up a little bit, but it’s taken a back seat to a recent Rolling Stone article about rape at the University of Virginia.  This makes sense because we’re just north of Charlottesville.

If you haven’t read the Rolling Stone piece, it’s pretty grisy: a  first-year at UVA was gang-raped at a fraternity party by several fraternity brothers as part of some sort of disgusting initiation ritual.  This story is in addition another story on Jezebel about one student raping several girls and his victims basically being bullied out of school as a result.

#edchat yesterday was asking who the Thought Leaders are in education, a conversation that’s not only incredibly Orwellian in its concept but is an illustration of how Connected Educators are as out of touch with the real world as they say teachers are.

And of course, we aren’t.  We’re reading the news and talking about the news when we get the chance and doing our best to answer questions our students may have.  The problem is that it’s tough to answer those questions and talk about the story without fear of reprisal.  When a student brings up a hot, controversial topic and you want to talk about it with them, your head is bombarded with a mine field’s worth of thoughts.  Trust me, I’ve been there.  My advanced sophomores and I got into a heated discussion about the teaching of evolution a few years ago and two of them felt the need to go to guidance and say that I was “making them feel uncomfortable.”

So when someone, even an honors student, approaches the topic, I do my best to encourage the conversation but the entire time I’m thinking, “How do I stay neutral?  How do I not offend anyone in the room?  How do I keep this conversation civil?  How can I fit this into the curriculum?  How does this not turn into an angry parent phone call at the end of the day?”

Even if I did have a constructive conversation about rape with my students, it wouldn’t be enough.  What’s described in the articles is a cultural problem where boys of privilege are allowed to behave abhorrently and are excused for their behavior.  It’s wrapped up in victim blaming or worse, “tradition,” and it means that girls and women who are sexually assaulted are continuously afraid to tell anyone what happened to them.  And why would they?  They’re crying rape and ruining the lives of those “really nice boys.”  So I need to take a conversation about rape with students beyond a few minutes in my classroom.  How?

The classic response would be an assembly where you get a motivational speaker to come in and talk about why this is wrong.  You could even get news coverage for it.  It worked when that guy came and talked about bullying, didn’t it?  If that sounds cynical it’s because it is.  Those never work because every teenager in the room can see right through it.  Sure, some may come out with a slightly better perspective, but most will turn it into a joke and life will go on.  What’s needed is something along the lines of an actual curriculum.

That, however, is easier said than done.  Too many states have strict abstinence-only sex education policies and would probably rather bury their heads in the sand than acknowledge that: a) teenagers have sex and b) teenagers need to be taught and need to discuss responsible and correct behavior when it comes to sex.  I’m lucky that I had a fairly thorough education about sex, although I could nitpick it apart as well.  What I have seen in my teaching career isn’t very good and I can imagine that if we began to introduce the topic of rape it would become so quickly politicized that it would be shelved to eventually be abandoned and budgetary reasons would be the justification.  Or maybe that’s just my cynical view of things.

When we get back from Thanksgiving, my advanced classes and I will be looking at several essays and short stories that have something to do with the concept of identity and that will be the perfect opportunity to further the conversation.  But I’m frustrated when I see the award-winning Innovative and Connected Thought Leader Educators blabbing on about the same topics, ones that could stand to be put aside for another week or two.  You cannot possibly be wrapped up in your own sense of self-importance that you ignore what’s going on, can you?  If that’s the case, I don’t want to hear anyone tell teachers they need to make their classes “relevant.”

Snark aside, this issue will not go away and if it does it is because we ignored it away.  Changing our attitude and our culture toward rape is going to be difficult and will probably take years, but if we’re really concerned for the safety of our students, we owe it to ourselves to try.




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