Engaging Youth Educators in Current LGBTQQ Issues through Online Learning



Middle and high school is a difficult time for many teenagers, but for those in the process of coming out as LGBTQQ, it can be particularly challenging. School environments that are not, or do not appear to be, friendly, sensitive, and safe to LGBTQQ youth inhibit learning and can contribute substantially to a young lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or questioning person’s anxiety around their changing identity and social acceptance. Unfortunately, reports of LGBTQQ youth feeling unwelcome and unsafe in school are common in Rhode Island and nationwide.

In 2013, the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE) contracted with JSI to design, implement, and facilitate an online course for Rhode Island middle and high school teachers, nurses, and administrators regarding LGBTQQ youth. The goal was to inform educators about basic LGBTQQ issues, teach them how to actively contribute to the creation and maintenance of a positive and safe school climate for LGBTQQ youth, and provide resources that they could share with colleagues. Annie Silvia, MPA, Midge Sabatini, BSN, Ed.D., and Jodi Sperber, MSW, MPH created the course in collaboration with Youth Pride, RI  and then facilitated it for 12 participants in the spring of 2013 and 9 participants in the spring of 2015.

The course was organized around the following topics: LGBTQQ basics, exploring biases, challenging assumptions, providing support, and creating an inclusive classroom. Participants engaged in online learning activities, read current articles describing LGBTQQ youth issues, and watched videos in which LGBTQQ youth talked about their own experiences in school. Participants also contributed to an active ongoing forum discussion with classmates and facilitators and wrote reflection papers on various topics throughout the five week course.

In both 2013 and 2015, the course was a great success. Participant’s pre- and post-test results showed statistically significant improvement in their confidence in their:

  • use of LGBTQ terminology and inclusive language;
  • understanding of cultural assumptions, misconceptions, and values that affect the safety of LGBTQ youth;
  • ability to confront the use of derogatory language, jokes, or other inappropriate behavior;
  • ability to advocate for creating LGBTQQ youth safe spaces within the school environment.

And in course-end reflection papers, many participants praised the course for fundamentally shifting their perspective on LGBTQQ experiences, making them more aware of the relevant issues, and giving them resources to be an advocate going forward.

Part of the course’s success may be attributable to the suitability of an online course for learning in this topic area. Not only can participants take more time to think and reflect during online discussion than when in a classroom setting, but they also benefit from the semi-confidential feel of an online environment as they discuss sensitive topics.

In July 2015, we had the opportunity to share this online course on a national stage at the 2015 National Sexual Health Conference in Keystone, CO. Conference attendees included professionals specializing within sexuality, LGBTQQ issues, sex education, primary care, and STD/STI treatment and prevention. The presentation was well received from an audience of around 50 people. Several individuals asked how they could adapt the course for use in their home state.

If you are interested in learning more about the course, including how it may be adapted for use in your home state, please contact Annie Silvia at anne_marie_silvia@jsi.com.