SESP course ‘plants seeds,’ defies traditional education standards

Class brings ETHS and Northwestern undergraduate students together to cultivate humanizing learning systems

Ella Gutowski, Staff Writer

Corey Winchester wants to know his student’s stories. In fact, when I dove right into the interview I had planned for him, he stopped me and asked if I could tell him my story before he shared his. It became clear to me that the way our conversation began reflected not only who he is as an educator, but also his approach to Community Based Research Methods and Educational Justice, a course he co-teaches at Northwestern University. The course is designed to establish a sense of community, examine different research methods, and develop projects focused on educational justice. 

Winchester is part of a teaching team, which includes Dr. Megan Bang and Dr. Shirin Vossoughi, professors in the learning and science department at Northwestern. Originally proposed by Bang and Vossoughi in 2020, the commencement of the course was initially disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2021-2022 school year was the first in-person iteration, and this year’s program will be the second. The class is available to all ETHS students and Northwestern undergraduates at the School of Education and Social Policy (SESP).

A history and Sociology teacher at ETHS, Winchester has been very successful throughout his teaching career. Having previously won a Golden Apple Award for excellence in teaching and named Illinois High School Teacher of the Year in 2020, he credits his students for the enticing environment he creates within the classroom.

“The reason I have been awarded some of these things is because of the values that I bring in [and] how young folks have chosen to engage [in my classes],” Winchester shares.

Working with Mr. TaRhonda Woods, a science teacher at ETHS, the two educators considered ways to break down some of the barriers that exist in traditional curriculum and classes. One outcome was to bring together students from both the high school and Northwestern. 

“The reason I have been awarded some of these things is because of the values that I bring in.

— Golden Apple Award winner Corey Winchester

“There were a couple of things that were really important for the space, like how we can [effectively] bring the two institutions together and break down some barriers [like] GPA requirements. Having exhausted all the courses at ETHS, [we] just really [wanted] to create a space where learning can happen.”

The exclusion of grade and age requirements within the class provides many students opportunities they may have previously lacked. Structured less like a typical course and more like an open and friendly learning environment, the class differs from many extracurriculars at the high school.

“The course is multifaceted and goes beyond the ways that we’ve been traditionally taught in school. This is something that I feel like I’ve struggled with as someone who teaches history. Folks think that we exist within these really rigid disciplines. In history, you only talk about history, and in math, you only talk about math. But there is a context for everything,” Winchester says. “I think the course is really interdisciplinary in nature, but we talk about lots of disciplines [within school]. We’re [exploring] all different types of things.” 

Winchester has taught a wide range of subjects and says the SESP course focuses on–from a disciplinary standpoint–aspects of design, storytelling, reading, writing, and science, along with language, all of which intertwine and connect with one another. 

“As educators, there’s also a lot of design work that goes into what we do. It’s not about the physicality of how you’re setting up your room, but about how we [create] relationships with one another,” Winchester shares. 

Senior Dafina Ujak took the class last year for the first time and benefited from the course design and the sense of community it created. 

“At first it definitely felt intimidating and overwhelming knowing that [ highschoolers and college students] would be in the same learning environment. However, that instantly vanished and the community and nature of the course that was built amongst all of us was truly welcoming and encouraging. I was able to engage rapidly and learn from a new perspective,” Ujak shares.

This environment is one that changes and is influenced by the participants in the course and what they bring to the table. Winchester compared the learning space to that of planting seeds in a garden.

The community and nature of the course that was built amongst all of us was truly welcoming and encouraging.

— Senior Dafina Ujak

“We’re always in this process of creation, which is really interesting when you think about how learning environments exist; you’re planting seeds,” Winchester says. “You’re cultivating, you’re monitoring and you’re watching. There’s always this process of growing and iterating that happens, whether that be from the sunlight, or whether it be from little bugs that get into the soil and move around. So everyone is a part of how this plant is living and existing.”

With the focus of building relationships through language, Winchester reflected on the way I launched our conversation, anchoring to the values of the course and asking me to tell him a bit about myself: why I was interested in the course and what my story is. Winchester wanted to connect with me and he wanted to build reciprocal trust. That is exactly what he strives for his students to do in and out of the classroom, focusing on building strong “relational bonds”.

Ujak grew from what was taught in the class, describing the culture as one that “feels like home”.

“The faculty came from different backgrounds which made the class and space more alive and unique,” Ujak says. “Each one of them had their own story, background, and reason for being here.”

I entered the interview with Winchester looking for a specific answer to the broad question: What is the SESP course? It turns out, there’s no simple answer. The class takes a unique approach to education, navigating between multiple subjects. As a multigenerational space, the educators shed light on the importance of communication with one another–how to approach speech and language as a community, and getting to know others by sharing valuable experiences. Students are able to help shape and influence what goes on with their peers and the class as a whole and learn from both facilitators and one another. 

This program breaks down the confinements of the often uncompromising guidelines in many current highschool classes, and is an opportunity that should be recognized and taken advantage of within the Evanston community. In regards to Winchester’s main goals and philosophy, he says,“I’d like students to have an understanding of who they are and an understanding of who they are in relation to other people.”