Chris Olshefski, a 2021 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education PhD in Language, Literacy, and Culture program, recently received the 2022 Dissertation of the Year Award from the American Educational Research Association Religion and Education Special Interest Group (SIG).
His award-winning dissertation is titled “Functions of Religious Literacy in Literary Discussions of National Board-Certified English Teachers.” It examines the question of how English Language Arts (ELA) teachers can foster classrooms in which religions are discussed critically while also honoring diverse classroom identities.
“I was really excited and honored,” said Olshefski, an upper school English teacher at Winchester Thurston School in Pittsburgh. “After pouring my heart into this work for the past five and a half years, it felt really validating to know that others in my field found it to be worthy of recognition.”
Olsheski’s dissertation drew on data collected from high school ELA classrooms in which students and teachers discussed religion.
“English classrooms are known for cultivating rich discussions about all areas of human experience (such as race, gender, and sexuality), but one area that remains taboo and controversial is religion,” explained Olshefski. “At the same time, many of the texts that teachers assign in English class, like The Scarlet Letter or Things Fall Apart, deal explicitly with religion in one way or another.”
After years as an English teacher, he became fully aware of the way conversations about literature can be both productive and challenging, especially when they touch on people’s core identities and religions.
“It’s no exaggeration to say that such conversations have become risky over the past several years,” says Olshefski. “What I hope my work can do for the educational research community is to provide a pathway toward productive conversations between students, teachers, and texts across religious differences.”
Olshefski credits Pitt Education for providing him with advanced training in research methodologies and the opportunities that led him to his dissertation topic.
“I had the privilege of serving on two National Science Research (NSF) research projects for which my advisor Amanda Godley, served as a principal investigator,” says Olshefski. “I was able to examine the instructional practices of literally hundreds of teachers, produce several publications and conference presentations, and network, which led me to the data set I would eventually use for my dissertation.”
Olshefski says his involvement and the work he did with the Center for Urban Education (CUE) contributed immensely to his career and was morally life-changing.
“Every opportunity I could, I made a point to attend CUE lectures, to take classes with professors affiliated with CUE,” says Olshefski. “I have to thank Dean Kinloch, Dr. Thompson Dorsey, Dr. Delale-O’Connor, Dr. Patel, and Dr. Dancy for their strong example of what it means to be an educator and scholar committed to social justice and equity,” says Olshefski.