The day that we talked about rape jokes

One day this summer, staff of our oldest boys came up to me.

“Jen,” they said. “Can we do a group on rape comments? The sexual jokes keep coming and yesterday [Name] made a joke about what he would do to [Celebrity] if he found her drunk and passed out. They just don’t get that rape isn’t something to joke about. And I think they get so much of this from the internet. They just don’t understand.”

[For a little more context: these boys, besides being clueless adolescents, also happen to all have Asperger’s Syndrome, or related social-cognitive challenges.]

And so the following morning I sat with the group of 13-15-year-old boys.

“Remember a few weeks ago we talked about jokes?” I began.

“Yeah, like the deadly jokes?” one of them asked.

“How you can’t joke about suicide or religion or race,” another added.

“Right. And what did we say about sexual innuendo jokes?” I asked. We quickly reviewed how, at their age, innuendo exists, and it’s funny. It can be funny to look at a banana and think it looks like something else. It can be funny to hear someone say “I blew so hard,” when talking about blowing up a balloon. It’s okay. That’s expected. It just depends on who you share innuendo with, and when. You don’t make that type of joke with a staff member, or a teacher, or a parent.

I asked them if they knew of any other deadly topics that we hadn’t talked about, and after guesses like, “family” and “disabilities” (they are such good kids, SUCH good, sweet kids…), one of them guessed, “sex?” And another guessed, “rape?”

They all burst out laughing. As expected. But I waited, and then I asked them, “Who knows what the definition of rape is?”

As we began to walk down this path of conversation, laughter came in and out, but I held their gaze and I told them, “It’s okay. It’s an uncomfortable topic. People laugh when they feel awkward or uncomfortable. It’s okay. If you need to walk away or take a break, it’s okay.” They all stayed.

We talked about what rape is. We talked about where they hear rape comments (the internet, they said. One boy said, “Everything is inappropriate. It could be a video of a TREE on YouTube, and if you scroll down, there will be racist and sexist jokes and comments about sex.”).

Next we talked about the difference between sex jokes and rape jokes.

“While sex jokes are often “deadly”, meaning that they can have negative consequences depending on who you say them to, rape jokes are ALWAYS “deadly”, no matter who you make them with. And that’s because sex and rape are not the same thing.” I said.

“But they kind of are,” one boy said. “It’s the same actions.”

“I’m glad you brought that up,” I told him. “Does anyone know why people have sex?”

They laughed again.



I told them they were right. “Does anyone know why someone rapes?”

Silence. And then,



I looked at them and said: “A person rapes for one reason: power. When a person rapes someone, it isn’t about sex. It’s not about attractiveness.”

“Wait,” one boy said. “I get it. So even though the physical actions are similar, the intent is different.”

Another boy added, “I guess you never know what someone has been through, which is why you shouldn’t joke about it?”

Yes. Yes. Yes. Kids are so smart.

“Right.” I told them. And then I shared some statistics about sexual abuse and rape. I watched their eyes widen as they looked around the table, counting the number of boys and the number of women. “Wait….” one of them said. “So someone here might have had that happen to them?”

You just never know. You don’t take that chance.

We talked about how damaging it can be for someone to hear a joke about rape. We played out some scenarios, doing Social Behavior Mapping, to look at the effects of a rape comment. They talked about how maybe people would feel unsafe around them, might be worried that they were going to harm them, might think that they disrespected women and maybe wouldn’t want to be around them anymore. These were their ideas. Their thought processes. They got it.

We talked about the kind of people they want to be. We talked about what they can do if they hear a rape comment or joke. How they could be a bystander or not. How they can choose to laugh or not. How if they choose to laugh, what message it sends. They got it.

We could’ve skipped all this. We could’ve sat them down and said, “You will have a serious consequence if I hear one more of those comments.” We could’ve. But what would that have done? The thing is – we have to have these hard conversations. It’s okay if they laugh. It’s okay if they want to walk away. It’s okay. But we have to talk about it, because otherwise they don’t know. Otherwise they don’t have the space to ask the questions. Otherwise they go on doing what they’re doing because nobody has given them a reason or an opportunity to do otherwise.

So we talk. We have the conversations, and over and over again, we talk.

The goal of the assignment

On nearly every evaluation that I write, in nearly every IEP meeting that I attend, I talk about that phrase: the goal of the assignment.

Imagine that you are being taught how to juggle. You are taught the movement with your hands and the pattern. “Now,” they tell you, “we’re going to practice.” During your practice, they keep reminding you about the order of your arms and where to throw the balls. But they keep telling you to do other things, too. “Come on,” they say. “You need to be balancing on one foot the entire time.” When you try to balance, you drop all the balls. They remind you again of the order. “Don’t forget to smile,” they tell you. “You need to be smiling while you’re balancing and juggling.” You try to smile but then you can’t balance and you certainly can’t juggle. In fact, you can’t do anything right. You leave feeling defeated.

That is how our kids feel at school. Once they start to learn one skill, they are quickly asked to do it in conjunction with other skills – none of which they are confident and proficient in on their own, let alone combined.

During testing, both formal and informal, nearly every single one of my kids comes out the same way: when comprehension is measured without the addition of decoding demands, they show a higher comprehension level.

An explanation:

The kids I work with have language and learning challenges. Many of them have a language disorder, many of them have dyslexia or other reading disorders. I have an 8th grader who comprehends at a 2nd grade level, and many of our 4th graders are still learning sounds that make up digraphs and trigraphs (-dge, ch-). Amidst their learning what the letters sound like, what the sound combinations are, they are also practicing comprehension – understanding what the words mean. And, without question, this is where the breakdown occurs.

Imagine you are an English speaker, learning Hebrew. You have learned the symbols and letters and sometimes remember a few sight words: animals, colors, clothing. Now, you are given a paragraph. I can do this, you think to yourself. You spend every ounce of brain energy remembering the letters, sounding out the consonants and vowels, putting the sounds together, word after word after word. You read the entire thing. Yes! I did it. Then your teacher smiles, and says, “Okay, great reading. Now, we are going to answer some comprehension questions about what you read.” What? you think to yourself. I have no idea what that meant. You go through it a second time. You blend consonants and vowels. You sometimes forget how to pronounce a letter and get corrected. You have a word done. Oh, you think to yourself.  I don’t even know what that word means. You try to re-read it, seeing if it’ll jog your memory, but you have to just sound it out all over again. You think it means “dog.” You get to the next word. It takes you so long to sound it out correctly that, you’ve forgotten what the word before it meant.

You’re exhausted. You’re defeated. You feel stupid and unsuccessful.

This is what happens to my kids. Whenever possible, the goal of the assignment needs to be determined, I write in my evaluation reports. If the goal is decoding [sounding out words, blending sounds together], Jen should work on such skills without being asked to comprehend. If the goal is comprehension [making meaning/demonstrating understanding of a piece of text], Jen should have access to text-to-speech, or have a teacher/parent read the text to her, effectively bypassing her decoding deficits and truly focusing in on what she can comprehend. If decoding and comprehension are worked on simultaneously, Jen will likely demonstrate a lower level of comprehension, as all of her energy will be spent decoding.

So, I will continue to recommend, suggest, encourage: determine the goal of the assignment.

If the goal is neatness of handwriting, ignore incorrect spelling.

If the goal is comprehension, read the text to them.

If the goal is expression of ideas, let them say their answers aloud instead of writing.

If the goal is juggling, ignore their posture.

Determine the goal.

Common Core Rambles

Disclaimer: If you are looking for a well-researched blog post, this is not it. If you are looking for a post written by someone who is impartial and who doesn’t let her emotions get in the way of her opinions, this is not it. This is not organized, likely not going to be proofread (and why not, you ask? Because often when I proofread, I delete things. Things that I really had wanted to say. I’m more raw and real, and ME, when I don’t edit. And, as always, you can take it or leave it. It’s all good.), and realistically contains a misconception or two. It might be idealistic and impractical. It might be downright wrong. But, it’s my brain right now. 

“Write while the heat is in you. The writer who postpones the recording of his thoughts uses an iron which has cooled to burn a hole with. He cannot inflame the minds of his audience.” (Henry David Thoreau)

So, I’m thinking about the Common Core State Standards. Because today we had the first of many in-services about them. And I have thoughts.

Like: I’m all in favor of trying to get everyone on the somewhat-same page. Trying to make things more universal. Striving for progress. I like the hypothetical idea of a step-by-step staircase and structured, linear, hierarchy. I love making reading and writing part of all of the content subjects, instead of an isolated part of the day. Kind of like how Social Thinking shouldn’t be taught solely in an isolated once a week environment, but should be infused, embedded, and reinforced in all contexts.

But I feel the anxiety rising in me when I think about the other parts.

Like: the people behind the Common Core development have acknowledged that they are making things harder. That they are continuing to raise the bar for our students, and they have actually said something along the lines of, “Standardized test scores are predicted to fall, not because students are doing worse but because we’re making tests harder.” I cannot wrap my head around that.

There are all of these statistics and graphs and facts to show how many kids in our country are not at grade level, and how many are not even at basic level, which is several grades below their grade level. And it’s a lot of kids. The logical solution to me, then, is to alter our education system, go with some new approaches, work on training our teachers to teach in a way that kids learn. Not to raise the bar even further. It’s not as though raising the bar is going to make our kids say, “Oh! The bar is higher? Okay, I’ll just jump even higher to get there!” This isn’t a motivation thing, on the part of teachers or students. And, raising the bar further, increasing expectations, doesn’t do anything to ensure that teachers are teaching in a way to get kids to achieve those possibly unrealistic standards.

A lot of the philosophy around the Common Core seems to be related to what skills students need to survive, and thrive, in college and in their careers and beyond. But it still seems illogical. I support the idea of being able to comprehend complex text, of being able to create, synthesize, evaluate ideas and concepts, of being able to think out of the box. I get how those skills are necessary for college, for graduate school, for succeeding in many careers. The problem is, I don’t know that continuously placing more and more demands on kids who are already falling apart, is the answer.

We are so stuck on preparing kids for careers and college, but WHY? Are there really so many kids who fail as adults, and is it truly because they didn’t learn enough in school? (Aside from contributing factors like ESL, low-SES, etc.) And – we turned out fine. Granted, I’m an intelligent woman, but still – the things I was required to know and achieve in each grade were not the demands being placed on our kids today. And I went to high school, and I didn’t take all AP classes, and I went to college, and I didn’t get straight A+s, and I still took the GREs, and I didn’t get a perfect score, but I still went to graduate school and I did well and I have a wonderful job and I am successful. The people my age, the people my parents’ generation, we’re okay. So what is this disconnect that is making us believe that all of a sudden schools are failing to teach us what we need to know for life? (Again – aside from teachers who truly are not competent, overcrowding in schools, lack of access to materials, etc.)

More and more time is being spent on making our kids work harder, learn more, develop skills earlier and earlier. Kids have more homework, less time for play, less time to be a kid, less time to just…..BE. Mental health issues are increasing, kids are more anxious, depressed, hyperactive, inattentive, vulnerable than ever. More and more kids are diagnosed with learning disabilities, as they are not achieving grade level content. More kids are being referred for special ed services, as they aren’t reaching these arbitrary “grade level” benchmarks when they “should”. As early as kindergarten. In my core, I don’t think this is all a coincidence. In my core, I believe this is all connected. And that’s not research-based, that’s not a substantiated claim, and I am not claiming it to be.

What about all of the studies showing that kids learn best when they are allowed to play, allowed to naturally explore? What about studies showing that a lack of play is so detrimental? That sitting at a desk all day is actually not the most effective method of teaching. Teaching, knowledge, learning, they can all be defined in a myriad of ways. And our education system is stuck in one set way. In a one-size fits all. And, might I add, all of these issues are pertinent for general education students. Adding in special education to the mix is a whole other post for another day.

The bar continues to rise. Demands continue to increase.

But at what cost for our kids?

Things I know

I have a lot of little thoughts in my head. (I know, you’re shocked)
These are the things I know.

–Our education system is so broken. I don’t know how to fix it, and I wish I did.

–So much of life is about finding balance. Really about everything. Food, sleep, socialization, work, cleaning….it’s all a balance. Sometimes needing one extreme over the other. Sometimes needing the middle ground. I’ve been thinking so much about that word lately, as it comes up everywhere.

–Writing is therapeutic for me. It also makes me be brave. And Be Real.

–It is the other person’s job to tell me if he/she is upset with me. It is NOT my job to be a mind reader and be able to guess. (*credit to this one is my wonderful, dear friend, T. I cling to this statement when I’m in an anxious or spinny place)

–Blame and anger can be separate equations. (*Also from T. She is very very wise)

–Trauma comes in a lot of different forms. Past experiences that seemed unimportant at the time might have had a lasting impact. You will figure it out and deal with it when life is ready for you to. You get to NOT second guess your experiences.

–We are all lovable.

–Rain can sometimes be soothing and sometimes be sad.

–This will not break me. (Whatever “this” is. Whoever “me” is. It will not break you.) (*Ok, this is also from T. I probably should just write an entire post about all her wise words.)

–People deal with so many things. Look beyond the stereotypes. You can suffer from depression and still be able to get out of bed. You can have anxiety yet get through a day calmly. You can struggle with your body image yet be an “average” weight. You can have a learning disability yet do great in your classes. You can have ADHD and not get up from the table and run around every five minutes. You can be a victim of sexual assault without being held at gunpoint by a stranger in a park at night. You can be a lesbian and love makeup and dresses. The world would be a better place if we saw things for what they truly are – a continuum, a spectrum, a myriad of people and examples, not a one-size-fits-all universe.

What do you know?


Learning Rambles 2

I have been avoiding writing this. Shocker, I know. I (still) feel like I have to justify my writing, put out the disclaimer that it might not be that good, so that if it ISN’T that good, I already prepared myself and won’t be let down. Or something. But anyway.

I wrote Learning Rambles the other week, and more and more thoughts are swirling in my mind. I finished reading Your Brain on Childhood, and we just finished two horrendous weeks of administering MCAS (state testing), and all of that combined is making me think.

Our education system is SO messed up. For all students. And/but especially for mine, who are all special ed students.

During MCAS, my students were required to sit in a room and read grade-level texts, and answer grade-level questions, when they often aren’t at grade level. My 7th grader struggled through the reading comprehension part. She reads at a 2nd grade level independently. She got frustrated. Yes, I could read out loud to her. No, that didn’t help. She has a language disorder among other learning disabilities. The point is that there is this push toward getting all kids on grade level. And this push is doing more damage than good.

There is SO much research to state that kids don’t learn best when they are stuck in a classroom all day. Many studies, even other countries who do it better than we do, demonstrate that less homework, more time outside, more free play time, and more time to focus on what they’re interested in, make happier, more creative kids. AND, most importantly, it does NOT hinder development of intelligence! That’s the problem. That’s the fear, the false belief. Neuroscience, psychology, it all shows that kids are meant to learn and develop in one way. And our educational system is forcing them into another way.

And we wonder why anxiety, depression, attention issues, etc., are all on the rise? 

Grade level shouldn’t be the goal. That’s not to say that learning isn’t important, that acquiring new knowledge isn’t important.

Grade level doesn’t mean anything. I’m sorry, I know that’s a bold statement, but it doesn’t. Many of my kids are nowhere near “grade level” but have far more skills in various other areas of intelligence than I do. “Grade level” does not equal happiness. It does not equal success. It does not equal a future.

“Grade level” is an idealistic term, a way of trying to cram every student into a box, when in reality, most students don’t fit in that box. “Grade level” is why I hear parent after parent of elementary and middle school kids stress in IEP meetings, saying, “If she isn’t reading at grade level, how will she ever graduate high school or go to college?” 

Along with the “grade level” issue is the “teach to the test.” I wrote, a few weeks ago, about how my students seem to learn more, and are happier and calmer, more creative and more interested, when we are learning about things THEY want to learn about, things they naturally stumble upon. And oh, how I want to do that all day every day. But I feel like I’m in a constant battle. I can’t NOT teach them how to answer inferential comprehension questions from random reading passages, because that’s what’s required for them to pass MCAS, and to graduate high school. And even for those parents, and there are so many of them, who have similar opinions as I do – what are they supposed to do? We are in the minority. What will we do – band together and decide to boycott MCAS and extracurriculars and homework? Sounds pretty ideal and great to me – except when, because the system is so flawed, these kids aren’t going to get into college, because despite being clearly intelligent and creative, they don’t have a high school diploma (not from not learning, but from not passing a standardized test that in no way captures what a student actually knows and is capable of), nor do they have 100 hours of extracurriculuar activities to “prove themselves”. 

I just don’t get how that is fair. I don’t get it at all. It frustrates me to no end because I feel stuck. I have these beliefs and what I know are truths – and I also have the system. And I’m not strong enough to fight against the system. 

If you have made it through this incredibly disorganized and not even remotely logical rant, kudos to you. Dare I say it, I want to hear what you have to say. 

Do you understand what I’m saying? Do you agree? Do you disagree? Do you have a way of explaining what I’m trying to get at that’s much more succinct and cohesive than how I said it? Is this an uphill battle that isn’t worth fighting?

What do you think?


Learning rambles

This is going to be incoherent but I have to write before I lose the thoughts and the concepts deep into the folds of my brain, never to be even partially articulated. 

I’m reading a book. It’s called Your Brain on Childhood, by Gabrielle Principe. I’ve only read about 60 pages so far, but I’m captivated. It’s very research-heavy, citing lots of studies regarding child development, animal development, and ultimately the clear theme is that our kids aren’t being kids. Between phones, ipads, computers (all screens), lack of true “play” time (which is actually a necessity for kids! It’s how they learn – truly learn! Not just memorize what they’ve been taught), and a push to be fastersmarterwisermoredeveloped, we’re causing more problems than we’re solving. In trying to help our kids be smart and brilliant and successful, we’re actually doing the opposite sometimes.

Now, I speak as someone who is NOT a researcher, not an expert in human development, not (yet) a mother. So I can’t speak with fact or certainty. But I can speak intuitively, and I can speak from experience, with about a zillion kiddos, all across the spectrum.

And I can observe. And notice what is hardly a surprise: that the rise in learning disabilities is increasing. That more and more kids are on IEPs. That more and more kids are falling behind in school, and more and more kids are hating school. That anxiety and depression are consuming kids younger and younger. I can’t convince myself that this is random, that there’s no reason behind this. Why is it, well, I can’t state with certainty. But from my observations, of my own students and my friends’ children? I’m observing the amount of homework is increasing. That kids have less and less time to play. That more of an emphasis is placed on MCAS and other state testing. That the “fun” units can’t be taught in school because there’s no time. That kids are taught rules and things to memorize but there’s no time to learn what they want. There’s no more time to learn naturally. 

I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that my most successful speech/language therapy sessions are the ones in which we veer off course and have a completely child-directed, randomly-flowing, session. It can’t be a coincidence that my students seem to learn more when we’re talking about something that they brought up or noticed. It can’t be coincidental that what they seem to retain most comes from natural learning opportunities, and often ones they have brought upon themselves.

I don’t know what else to say. There are clearly a lot of thoughts in my head and I realize this is anything but coherent, and probably full of vast accusations and gross generalizations. But I gave you the disclaimer that this is based on absolutely no fact, nothing but my own brain, my life, my experiences. I’m sure they’ll be more to come, more to say, and maybe some cohesiveness eventually. But in the meantime?

Does anyone else, whether you’re a student, a professional, a parent, get this? Feel the same way? Totally disagree? Tell me your thoughts. It’s okay if they’re not based on anything other than the neurons firing in your head. 

Progress Reports.

It’s Progress Report time, which, for a special education school, means reporting on the progress of each benchmark within each goal, for each student. For me, it’s reporting on their progress towards their Receptive/Expressive Language (speech/language) goal.

And while doing that, I’ve realized how much of our data is confounded. I mean, obviously. There are a million different factors and that goes with the job, with the therapy. But I have so many students who live very much in their heads. Some who can even express what it’s like to be inside their minds and their bodies, who can explain, whether it’s through a script or a drawing, how their brain works.

And it isn’t easy for them to come out of their heads. And it isn’t easy for them to learn in the way that we teach. Easier when we modify, easier when we cater toward their needs and personalities, but still not easy.

So when I report that a student did not achieve a benchmark, did not obtain x/y/z skills, I’m struggling with it. Because I want to put in bold underneath:

-Student may know way more than s/he is able to show us.
-Student’s performance varies based on his/her internal state and sensory regulation.

Now I don’t know how much the Dept. of Ed. would like that (sarcasm) so I don’t do that. But I want the parents of my students to understand. That it’s not necessarily that their child can’t do something. Yes, there are things they can’t do, can’t understand, can’t comprehend. But I truly, firmly, strongly believe that more often than not? It’s that the world around them is not shaped in a way where they can SHOW what they know. Where they can access the knowledge that’s being taught. Where they can truly express their knowledge, thoughts, and comprehension.

I just want parents to know that. That I think their kids, all of them, are brilliant. That I understand them. A lot. On a nonverbal way, on that I-understand-him-through-my-soul way. That no matter what my Progress Report says, no matter how many benchmarks are or are not achieved, I will not give up. I will not think their child is incapable, not think that they have plateaued in development, not think that they do not or cannot understand something. I will not stop trying to meet them on their level, and I will not stop trying to teach in a way that they get. And if that means scripting back and forth with a student for 20 minutes so that I can explain a concept in a way that they understand? You bet I’ll do it.

Your kids are brilliant. All of them.

Please know that I know that.

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