Diversity Practices for Distance Learning

Creating an LGBTQ+ Inclusive Online Space

Rick Oculto, MSW, Director of Education, Our Family Coalition - September 2020

Online Space and Personal Space

Just as in a physical classroom a virtual classroom has opportunities to show support for student identity. Some of the main places that you can show this support are as follows:

  1. Classroom Landing Page - Some virtual classrooms give you the ability to personalize the landing page or other parts of the classroom experience. Consider placing diverse pictures, quotations, videos, etc… in these virtual spaces. Some visuals to consider are pictures of people of color, Pride flags, and representations of gender diversity among other things.
  2. Email and Digital Communications - Many forms of digital communication give the ability to set a signature or sign-off. This is an easy place to write a statement of inclusion or include a quotation that highlights diversity. (i.e. In this class we respect the diversity of our communities and work to ensure that everyone feels welcome. We see and value people of different races, ages, genders, sexual orientations, levels of ability, language, socio-economic backgrounds, religions, cultures, etc…) This is also a good space to share your pronouns.
  3. Physical Space & Backgrounds - If your classroom uses camera features and students can see the background of your home or workspace then there is an opportunity to place supportive symbols in their field of view. These will be the same as things you might put up in an in-person classroom such as flags, posters, and pictures. Consider using the same kinds of images if you use a virtual background as well.

Here are some links to graphics you can use:

LGBTQ+ Pride Flag (Gilbert Baker Version) 

Autism Rights Symbols

LGBTQ+ Progress Flag and Trans Flag

GLSEN Safe Space Poster

Black Lives Matter Graphics

Other Safe Space Posters

Rules & Classroom Agreements

One of the easiest ways to establish good behavior and the values of your classroom is to set expectations with rules and classroom agreements at the very beginning of the year. Outline in detail how students are expected to treat each other and be explicit about groups and behavior. For example, instead of saying, “We don’t put other people down,” and leaving it at that it is better to say, “We don’t put other people down for their gender, skin color, language, religion, accent, ability, culture, or for who they like because everyone’s background is different and everyone is important.” By being explicit you can then reinforce these ideas later by recalling this conversation.

Some example classroom agreements in addition to the one above:

  1. We will practice empathy and patience for everyone's learning style.
  2. Everyone's home is different and we will respect every person's living situation.
  3. We will support each other and lift each other up when we make mistakes.
  4. We agree to use each other’s names and pronouns respectfully.

The same as in a physical classroom, it can be useful to post these rules and agreements somewhere that can be reviewed so that there is a reference to point to. If it is on a landing page it can also serve as a reminder every time that a student joins a classroom or visits your page.

One of the best methods for buy-in for rules and classroom agreements is to have students participate in the process of creating them. It can be useful to engage your students in a discussion about what would make them feel safe and the best kind of environment to help them learn. Keep a set of “non-negotiables” for the things you know need to be in the list so that you can suggest them but allow the students to lead the discussion. Many will find that the students already know what would make the classroom more welcoming to them and will most likely cover  your concerns as a teacher. This will provide the students the agency to build their own environment and empower them to adhere to and remind each other what they have agreed to be important for a productive classroom.

Survey for Students

One method of getting the pulse of your students for your online class about a healthy learning environment is to provide students with a survey several times during the year. Student identities may change during the school year. It can be important to assess the kinds of environments the students are physically in while they are distance learning as these can translate into unique situations that may hamper or even prohibit learning. Additionally, you can ask for information that can help you as the teacher and the other students in the class better meet the needs of their fellow classmates. Some example questions:

  1. Is there a name other than the one on your student record that you would like the class to use?
  2. May I use this name with the adults in your life (i.e. parents, family, etc..) or would you like me to use the name in your student record?
  3. What pronouns do you use?
  4. Do you have a quiet, safe place to learn and focus?
  5. Do you have any concerns about engaging in online learning in your living situation?
  6. Is there anything I should know about your living or family situation that might impact your learning?
  7. What would make this class a better learning environment for you? What can we do to make that happen?

What would make this class a better learning environment for you? What

can we do to make that happen?

Names and Pronouns

Many of the online chat clients will give users the ability to set their names. With this ability comes a great opportunity for students to display the name by which they want to be called. Online etiquette has been evolving since the beginning of social media, but has not been adapted in large form for classroom settings, so, it is important to check in with your students about the names they display. If you had not already checked in with your student and you see a name displayed that does not match their student record or what you expected then it is recommended to talk with them about it to see what the discrepancy is about. You may find that some students want a certain name to be used only with particular people around or, conversely, when certain others are not present. This may be an opportunity for them to use a name in a safe environment that they had not used previously and they may be gauging their own level of safety.

With regards to pronouns on display names, it is a good idea only if there is precedent set about how pronouns are shared and how they are treated. A good practice is to share your pronouns first as the teacher and then let the students self-select if they want to share. The reason for this caution is that, for many trans and non-binary students, being forced to share pronouns can lead to easy identification and targeting for later harassment. If there is a shared understanding on respect with regards to names, pronouns, and gender then you may consider sharing pronouns in the display name. It can serve as a good reminder of how to refer to someone. Each class, however, is different and it is recommended to gauge the safety of it along with your students. It is important to do this assessment as a group and with students individually to limit the effect of peer pressure.

One way to introduce the concept is to start with your pronouns in your own display name and then explain, “I’ve shared my pronouns because I want you to know how to refer to me respectfully. I want to do the same for you and want to come to an agreement on how we respect each other in class. If you want, you can also share your pronouns, and maybe once we get to know each other we can all feel comfortable sharing them together.”

A quick checklist for names and pronouns protocol:

  1. Check with the students individually to see how they would like to be referred to
  2. Follow-up with the class to create an understanding on how names and pronouns will be used
  3. Allow students to share or not share based off of their own assessment of safety
  4. Set an example with an introduction and explanation for your own name and pronouns
  5. Check in periodically with the class to see if what you have agreed upon still works for them

an agreement on how to respect each other in class

Respond to Discrimination, Bullying, and Harassment

The number one rule for dealing with discriminatinon, bullying, and harassment is that you must respond every time. Do not ignore it or make excuses for it. Whether it is a student, a colleague, or even a family member that might say something discriminatory in a virtual classroom it is essential to address it as it occurs. Students are absorbing how we, as the adults, are responding to discriminatory words and actions and the example must be set that it cannot be ignored. Otherwise the message that some discrimination is allowed some of the time will get conveyed.

Here are the recommended steps that you can take to address discrimination:

  1. Stop the language or behavior that is discriminatory. You can pause the conversation, call attention to what was said or done, or even redirect the conversation to address what was said or done. However, do not ignore it or minimize the impact and commit to addressing it every time that it occurs.
  2. Name the behavior explicitly and explain why it is not acceptable. For example, instead of saying, “We don’t talk like that here,” you should instead say, “The word you used is a slur that is racist and that is not accepted here. We want our classroom to be one where every student feels safe for who they are.”
  3. Check in with the class to see how they are reacting to what has occurred and assess what kinds of support are needed.
  4. If not already agreed upon, work on strategies together on what to do if it occurs again or something similar occurs in the future. Remember that shame is not the goal and that people make mistakes. A healthy classroom environment where everyone can participate is the goal.

Resources for responding to or creating a preventative environment for discrimination:

Tips from Teaching Tolerance on how to respond to racism with regards to COVID-19

Facing History and Ourselves Student-Centered Approach to Online Teaching

ADL’s Bullying and Cyberbullying Prevention Resources

Provide Social Support

Through the pandemic, protests for racial justice, and devastating fires we are experiencing major traumatic events as large communities. The impact of such an experience will have effects that can and cannot be anticipated. Here are some ideas for providing space and resources for your class:

  1. Make time to provide check-in hours for your students outside of academic work
  2. If you hosted support groups or affinity groups, continue to have them virtually and work with the students to make the space and time meet their needs
  3. Offer outside resources for support. For example, students that are feeling depressed with regards to LGBTQ issues can call the Trevor Lifeline at 1-866-488-7386 or reach out to their Chat/Text services at TheTrevorProject.org/Help.
  4. Outside support groups may also help. For LGBTQ youth that might need extra support and socialization they can visit https://www.trevorspace.org/ or, if they want groups more focused on gender then they can visit https://genderspectrum.org/articles/gender-spectrum-groups

Study and Learn about Lesson Plans and Student Activities

There are many online resources to help teachers with their own content learning and strategies about how to discuss topics of diversity in the classroom throughout the year. Make it a continuous practice rather than a one time event. Here is a list of some of these:

ONE Archives Foundation

The ONE Archives Foundation has partnered with the UCLA History-Geography Project to host Professional Learning Symposiums and provide LGBTQ history lesson plans for educators at no cost. The lesson plans comply with California’s FAIR Education Act, which requires California K–12 schools to integrate fair, accurate, inclusive and respectful representations of the LGBTQ community and people with disabilities into their social studies and history classes.

Teaching LGBTQ History

This site serves as a comprehensive reference hub for information regarding the FAIR Education Act, as well as for History Framework Lesson Plans and General LGBTQ Lesson Plans, and resources to support teachers as they work with the new content required by the FAIR Education Act. We are honored to work together with you to help California’s history and social sciences education be more Fair, Accurate, Inclusive and Respectful for all K-12 students.

Facing History and Ourselves Building Classroom Community Back to School Toolkit

This new one-week unit is designed to help support your teaching in the opening days of a US History course and to develop students' social-emotional skills in order to engage in an open and supportive classroom community. These first class periods are important to establish classroom norms and an inclusive environment where students honor and value differing perspectives, question assumptions, and actively listen to others.

Welcoming Schools

Make your school more inclusive for all students! We have book lists for your school or classroom library, ready-to-use lesson plans, tips to make your school more welcoming for students and families and suggested responses to questions related to gender, families and LGBTQ topics.

Gender Unicorn

This teaching tool by Trans Student Educational Resources (TSER) can be used to start a discussion with your students on the differences and relations between gender, gender expression, gender identity, anatomy, and attraction.

Teaching Tolerance

Teaching Tolerance provides free resources to educators—teachers, administrators, counselors and other practitioners—who work with children from kindergarten through high school. These resources include classroom lessons, webinars, grants, podcasts, policy guides and much more. Educators use our materials to supplement the curriculum, to inform their practices, and to create civil and inclusive school communities where children are respected, valued and welcome participants.


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