Elisabeth Fornaro, EDU ‘18, recently received the Dissertation of the Year Award from the International Association for Research on Service Learning and Community Engagement (IARSLCE). A recent graduate with a PhD in urban education, Fornaro’s research has focused on directing the spotlight of service learning back to the K-12 setting. More specifically, she has expanded the conversation about its benefits to include the positive impacts it has on teachers and their well-being, especially in challenging educational contexts. Her dissertation,”It’s Like Professional Food: Sustaining Urban Educators Through Service-Learning” explores how teachers’ participation in service-learning teaching communities ameliorates dissatisfaction among educators who may feel as though they cannot teach in ways that reflect their personal and professional commitments, such as fully meet the needs of their students at both the academic and emotional levels.
Fornaro’s research interests were inspired by her time as a special education and English as a second language instructor within the School District of Philadelphia. By definition, Fornaro has always been a multi-disciplinary researcher and educator. Her undergraduate work was centered around educational studies and public policy, laying the foundation for her to begin examining best practices from both the higher policy level as well as the applied practitioners’ perspective. She obtained her teaching certification through her time with the Philadelphia Teaching Fellows Program, which established her place as an educator for six years. She wanted to ensure she had a foundation as a teacher before moving into the policy realm, stating that “practitioners have the most informed and valuable perspectives.”
It was through this lens that her dissertation work became to take shape in the urban education program. Under the guidance of Drs. Maia Bloomfield Cucchiara, Kristie Jones Newton, and the faculty at the Academic Center on Research in Diversity, Fornaro underwent the quintessential doctoral student journey of facing many research paths from many perspectives before coming full circle to her original interest: service-learning. She notes that service learning is often examined through the lens of its impact on students. With her experience as a service-learning educator, she was able to bring a new perspective to an established body of research which has consequently propelled service-learning back into the spotlight. She approached this well-studied topic from a perspective that others have essentially overlooked: how it impacts teachers. With this in mind, it is no surprise that the IARSLCE review committee was impressed by her work. In addition to her surprise surrounding the recognition, she is delighted that this has been an opportunity to bring service-learning back into education discourse, stating, “it says that there are a group of people who agree” that this is indeed an important educational tool that teachers can use to regain autonomy and creativity in a field notorious for high turnover and dissatisfaction.
She notes that Temple’s multi-disciplinary approach to urban education has prepared her a variety of positions. As she examines the multitude of opportunities in front of her, she maintains that she wishes to stay in Philadelphia. She is currently looking at positions in schools, districts, non-profits, and universities that engage her skills as a researcher and draw on her teaching experience in a variety of educational contexts.