SESP Leads During a Time of Crisis

SESP Leads During a Time of Crisis

Nichole Pinkard, Shirin Vossoughi, Emma AdamNichole Pinkard, Shirin Vossoughi, Emma Adam

Three School of Education and Social Policy faculty members discussed the innovative ways they’ve adapted their work to address the multiple crises facing society during a recent webinar organized by Northwestern’s office of Alumni Relations and Development.

The wide-ranging conversation, moderated by School of Education and Social Policy Dean David Figlio, underscored the leadership role SESP has played during recent months.

The panel included Shirin Vossoughi, assistant professor of learning sciences; Nichole Pinkard, associate professor of learning sciences and faculty director of the Office of Community Education Partnerships (OCEP); and Emma Adam, the Edwina S. Tarry Professor of Human Development and Social Policy and Faculty Fellow at Northwestern’s Institute for Policy Research.

“It’s impossible to exaggerate the degree to which the events of the last several months have affected us all,” said Figlio, Orrington Lunt Professor of Education. “Communities of color in the United States have experienced particularly severe effects – both in terms of economic and health effects – and this further exacerbates the long experience of anti-Black racism and racial injustice that has permeated the United States.”

Figlio applauded SESP faculty for innovating in the classroom to ensure the University is positively impacting society, while also “making sure SESP research is as relevant and important and current as possible.” 

Read more about the conversation, which ranges from out of school education and community-based learning to adolescence stress and rapid response funding, below:

Shirin Vossoughi

Vossoughi identified three priorities she has as a professor, which she uses to foster a community of learners and a space for collective thinking. Those three priorities are designing a meaningful space for collective dialogue and learning; fostering students’ capacity for social critique and imagination – a sensitivity and sensibility – around social inequality; and authentic and meaningful forms of reading and writing that feel consequential to students, while supporting them to draw on their histories and their ways of knowing. “I quickly realized I needed some new ways to do these three things in my classes,” said Vossoughi, who adopted a social annotation system that allowed her students to participate in a collective space of reading.

Vossoughi noticed that over time students began to comment on one another’s contributions in ways similar to how she and her TA were commenting on student work – showing that students were picking up a “pedagogical sensibility” as they worked to validate and challenge one another. She also noticed that students were often revisiting ideas from previous readings – weeks later – which allowed those conversations to be ongoing in a collective way.

Vossoughi, a 2019-20 Ver Steeg Award recipient, focuses a portion of her research on learning in both schools and out of school and community-based settings. She is currently working with Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers to develop a project that creates a space for meaningful interdisciplinary learning. The project brings together teachers from various disciplines to co-design curriculum with students, parents, and community members.

Vossoughi recognized the important issues around learning loss caused by the pandemic but feels that such a narrative leaves out the deep learning that happens outside of school.

“Part of our effort to meaningfully engage with families is to think of this time as an opportunity to build new partnerships between schools and family, and between educational spaces and family,” she said. To that point, Vossoughi has been working with Evanston-based MetaMedia to develop expansive online programming for sixth graders in Evanston’s 5th Ward.

The focus of this curriculum has been on intergenerational storytelling – taking advantage of out of school programming by inviting elders from families and community to share stories with the collective. “We’re really interested in how this repositions learning as an intergenerational endeavor,” said Vossoughi.

Vossoughi believes one of the tragedies of this time would be to return to the way our schools and our systems were, while not taking advantage of this pause to reimagine what equitable and generative learning for all kids could look like. She points to “young people’s efforts to enact anti-racist curriculum that speaks to multiple communities’ histories and ways of knowing” as an example. Vossoughi believes we can learn a lot from this time, despite the challenges. “There's this profound recognition and opportunity of what is fundamental to education,” said Vossoughi, defining this opportunity as a prioritization on social relationships and student and community well-being.

Nichole Pinkard

Pinkard has always focused on issues of infrastructure. Coming from Kansas, Pinkard arrived at Northwestern at the age of 16 as a high school student participating in a summer program. “I had easy access in Kansas City to learn anytime, anywhere, and whenever I wanted,” Pinkard said. “There was no friction for me.” During that first summer on campus, Pinkard was able to visit a range of Chicago neighborhoods and immediately understood that “what was frictionless for me was not for everyone else.” This was a formative experience for Pinkard and it provided a catalyst for her future research and work with infrastructures.

To understand how the things that we take for granted in our environments might be barriers for other people, Pinkard has continually asked herself one question: How do we increase access to out of school experiences to help children develop their interests and passion?

The pandemic made this question very real, Pinkard said, because “the minute everyone went home, all of the sudden the infrastructure – who do you have access to, who are the people in your family, where are the resources – became a question that every family needed to answer.”

To address these issues, Pinkard and her team at OCEP have worked alongside Chicago Mayor, Lori Lightfoot, to launch the My CHI. My Future. initiative. The initiative is working to ensure that every kid in the city of Chicago has access to the necessary resources, people, and places to learn what it is that they need to be learning.

In an effort to make this a data-driven approach, Pinkard evaluated information on the shared spaces within communities and the inherent inequities around access to those spaces. “Just because something's there, doesn't mean that it's accessible,” Pinkard said.  “We began to look at other forms of data, such as walkability, and we realized in many of our communities – where we might have places and spaces – kids can't actually get there.”

The plan to launch My CHI. My Future. was in place prior to the pandemic, with an anticipated launch date of March 30. But as COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in early March, the conversations about the importance of physical spaces quickly shifted to the importance of online access.

Because of the partnerships that were already established, Pinkard and her team quickly surveyed over 300 different organizations to see if they had connected with their students. They found that the majority of these organizations had corresponded with their students in the first two weeks following the stay at home order, but these organizations needed to find their own ways to join together outside of school.

To help, Pinkard and her team reimagined an existing initiative they had already created – and redesigned it to fit the needs of the current environment. The initiative, called STEAMbassadors, works with young people in community colleges, who live in the communities they are focusing on, and trains them in STEAM education. “So, imagine these are the young people Shirin is training and working with and we then put them in collaboration with schools,” Pinkard said.

The program, which is intentionally diverse, has over 75 young people from the communities. They have been able to use the STEAMville platform to bring together twelve different organizations, who have put their content online to provide virtual camp opportunities for the Chicago Park District.

Beginning July 7, the platform will serve over 25 parks, making the programming available to all kids in Chicago. 

Emma Adam

Adam is an expert in developmental psychobiology of stress and sleep – focusing on adolescent stress. “Stress isn’t just a feeling, and student well-being is not just an emotional experience, it really effects all aspects of their life – including performance at school and their health,” she said.

Adam utilizes a diary approach with adolescents to help identify the sources of stress in their lives. She recently reconnected with young adults from an on-going study and surveyed them again to see how they are coping – and if their sources of stress have changed.

The study was relatively small – around 200 participants – and was a good representation of this community, but not the country as a whole. Knowing this, Adam contacted the American Psychosocial Association, which annually surveys American adults about stress.  

Adam reached out to the group, asking why they aren’t also looking at younger people. “They said, ‘sure, we can do it, but we don’t have the funding,’” said Adam, who then rallied some existing funding she had available to gather a nationally representative sample to examine the effects of the events of the past several months. Those results will be coming soon.

Prior to the pandemic, Adam was delivering a group-based in-person intervention to high school students. “The group was getting together and talking about race, essentially – talking about racial issues and about their identities,” Adam said.

“It’s white, Black, brown children or adolescents all together exploring issues of identity and family and what it means to them.” Adam shifted the group-based intervention online and continued reaching these children with this content “which then turned out to be really essential content for some of the things that are going on in the world today, including the race-related protests that followed on the tails of the lockdown from the pandemic.”

Adam highlighted how essential it is to have more funds available to allow for rapid response, not only on academic timelines, but on societal timelines. She said this funding would provide the ability to “make a difference in the moment.”

By David Johnson
Last Modified: 7/9/20