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Building equitable classrooms

Learning sciences professor encourages students to connect coursework to their lives

Before joining Northwestern’s faculty in 2015, learning sciences professor Shirin Vossoughi helped lead summer programs focused on preparing low-income and first-generation students for success in college. That experience helped shape Vossoughi’s path.

Shirin Vossoughi
Shirin Vossoughi

“My research is specifically focused on the design of equitable learning environments for students from historically underrepresented or non-dominant communities,” Vossoughi says. “I study what those look like, and what it means for these students to learn in environments that don’t require them to check parts of their identity at the door.”

Part of Vossoughi’s research involves working collaboratively with educators to design and study learning environments that cultivate respect and dignity for all students. Much of this work draws from anthropology: Vossoughi goes into classrooms, taking field notes and recording video, to study and work to improve these spaces. 

Creativity and community

Vossoughi’s research, and her experience working with a broad array of students and educators, made her a perfect fit to co-lead the new SESP Leadership Institute (SLI) with psychology professor Mesmin Destin. Designed for low-income and first-generation college students, this two-week summer program pairs academic coursework with an exploration of identity and inequality in education and beyond.

“SLI was the healthiest challenge I had in my life to this point,” says first-year student Faith Irvine. “I could feel myself growing and learning … it made campus feel like home.”

Vossoughi and Destin make sure the coursework connects to who students are. “And one of the ways we do that is by encouraging creative scholarly writing, which upends some of the norms of traditional academic writing and asks students to think about how texts matter for them in their lives,” Vossoughi says.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, is a prime example of creative scholarly writing, Vossoughi says, with its blending of narrative and scholarship. After she assigned the book to her SLI students, a young black woman in the program wrote an essay on the difference between reading Coates in SLI and reading it in her high school, which was predominantly white and where, Vossoughi explains, she felt pressure to represent her entire community.

“This sense of permission to be more of yourself in your writing actually opens up a voice for students that maybe hadn’t been allowed to be there in an academic piece of writing,” Vossoughi says.

From its inception, Vossoughi and Destin knew they wanted the program to take an asset-based approach, focusing on students’ vast skills and abilities and helping students incorporate those into their time at Northwestern.

“There is a history of these types of programs taking a more remedial approach — with a narrow focus on getting students caught up academically — and that can be disrespectful to students’ intelligence,” Vossoughi says. “The remedial approach also fails to recognize the cultural and intellectual resources that students from underrepresented backgrounds bring.”

For Vossoughi, taking an asset-based approach means students are encouraged to share their histories and backgrounds in the classroom. It also means understanding the innate value of students’ experiences, recognizing them as both students and teachers. This approach is interwoven through the morning class — Culture and Cognition, taught by Vossoughi — and the afternoon discussions led by Destin.

SESP professors Paula Hooper, Shirin Vossoughi and Mesmin Destin

SESP professors Paula Hooper, Shirin Vossoughi and Mesmin Destin

Lasting bonds

Community-building is a big part of SLI, and both Destin and Vossoughi work to weave social relationships into academic and intellectual activity.

“I’m a firm believer in the heart of educational settings being relationships among the people who are in them,” Vossoughi says. “SLI students are predominantly low-income or first-generation, which is something that they might feel legitimately alienated about when they arrive here. To have that group where you can be your full self, and you can talk about your full life and have that support system, is really fundamental. We know that those bonds matter for how students experience and thrive in college.”

Last summer, one of the final assignments asked students to record themselves critiquing a text. Vossoughi received an email late one night, asking if students could record their critique together. The next day, Vossoughi opened an audio file to hear a group of students, together in their dorm, discussing a 1967 article by a linguist about African-American English.

“Here are these 20-year-olds, looking at a 50-year-old text, arguing about it and talking about it critically,” Vossoughi says. “They were really engaging. That’s what you dream of as a teacher.”

Shirin Vossoughi is an assistant professor of learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP) and co-director of the SESP Leadership Institute (SLI).