08/13/2012 05:06 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2012

Leading Out Loud: How Teaching Leads to Learning

By JD Schramm

Like many educators at back to school time, I take time to reflect on my teaching in the previous academic year. Of the many courses I taught last year, one stands out, perhaps not so much for what I taught my students, but rather for what they taught me.

Stanford University invites faculty to create and lead seminars for undergraduates on topics related to our field of interest. These introductory seminars allow us to explore how "teachable" a subject may be while also engaging students in a topic that we enjoy and have an interest in exploring with others.

Under these guidelines I created and taught "Leading Out Loud," a course that combined my study and teaching of communication with my personal journey and interest in the leaders of the LGBT movement. The objective was to empower students to consider their own leadership style by drawing from the writings, speeches, and lives of men and women who "Lead Out Loud." I defined this as those that live on the margins as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered individuals and who worked tirelessly for equal rights to housing, employment, health care, and, more recently, marriage and military service.

The eight young people who joined me in the inaugural voyage of the course were a large enough group to provide diverse opinions and experiences, yet small enough to be intimate and engage their classmates each session. I attracted a solid mix of students of different genders, sexual orientation, political affiliation, and class year.

I arranged several great speakers, including Zoe Dunning, who spoke about the challenge of reversing Don't Ask Don't Tell, and Matt Ivester, who wrote the book lol:OMG about digital presence and cyber-bullying, and Brian Elliot, the founder of FriendFactor, which helps harness straight allies to take action on behalf of their LGBT friends. We brought in activists from the Soulforce Equality Ride and went on a field trip to see the film Milk, introduced by the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black at the Castro Theatre.

But wanting to have more dialogue than lecture, I devised an assignment involving a series of three increasingly challenging interviews with people whom the students deemed to be "leading out loud." First they interviewed a peer, then a mentor, and finally a leader of a local or national LGBT organization to gain perspectives on the leadership journey of others to inform their own. After conducting each interview the students wrote a reflective essay and led a short discussion of their experience with the class.

These interviews brought some of the richest experiences into the classroom. Students were looking at the voices and words of others to see what they could learn about their own lives and their own voices. Initially, students merely had to reach across the hall or across the campus to locate a peer to interview. Some found the act of asking another student to participate in the interview harder than conducting the interview itself. But all reported that the exercise helped them begin to see what they could learn from others' experiences.

The next interview caused students to consider who in their lives had served as mentors, what a mentor provides, and who met the criteria of a person that "leads out loud." One straight freshman reached back to a high school teacher who had only recently come out, another young man (not yet out to his parents) reached out to an adult only to find that this adult had just experienced having his daughter come out to him.

But, without question, the final interview synthesized the students' journey as they identified and spoke to leaders of organizations as diverse as GLSTEN, OUBC, SLDN, the NYC chapter of the National Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce, and Out and Equal. Two fascinating choices of topic illustrated that students had grasped the significance of the assignment beyond even my own expectations.

One young lesbian who had let go of her Vietnamese roots found that a radio station broadcast to her community of origin each Sunday night. She located a founder of Sống Thật Radio Station and, with the help of a volunteer translator, regained a connection to her heritage. And a straight student, stymied at whom to ask, watched Stanford's It Gets Better Video and reached out to one of the faculty members featured in the short clip. Through the course of the interview he gained a huge appreciation for this man's journey--but also inspired this educator because as a straight, southern, Christian student he was interested in the professor's story of leadership on the margins.

As an educator I am surprised often by my students. This class, however, blew me away. Their ability to operate in the ambiguity of a new and emerging course and take ownership of their learning was inspiring. I set out to teach but ended up learning in the process. I saw the benefits and risks of my own privilege, as an out white male at a school with great resources, and confronted my own fears as I chose whether to tell my straight colleagues in the faculty lounge what exactly my undergraduate seminar was all about. But, in the end, I think that's what great education is all about. Everyone in the class should be stretched and challenged whether he or she is at the front of the room or in one of the desks.

JD Schramm teaches communication at Stanford's Graduate School of Business where he founded the Mastery in Communication Initiative. He serves on the board of the Out for Undergraduate Business Conference, and advises the Reaching Out MBA Conference. Read his blog on Red Room.