Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Thesis Statement

People have been interested in hearing about my thesis. After a little research, here is a better statement describing of where I hope to go with this project. Thank you already for all the help!

I welcome feedback, tips, comments, suggestions, etc... you can email me at gregory.woods(at)


My Masters of Divinity Thesis, being written under the guidance of Professor Mikoski, will focus on re-imaging what short-term church mission trips could be. In this context, I am using short term mission trip to mean a trip primarily for teenagers and young adults going outside of their own community to do hands-on service projects in an economically-disadvantaged population for a short length of time, usually a weekend or a week, no more than two weeks. In its current iteration, these well-meaning trips have been problematic, often serving to reinforce stereotypes of poverty and minorities and establishing a helpee-helper relationship that creates an unhealthy power dynamic and fosters dependence.

 My main argument is that these mission trip experiences should be rooted in building interdependent relationships and by creating space for dialogue between groups of people that rarely interact in any meaningful way. Our society is so fragmented that even through we might live in the same geographical place as other people, we rarely engage with others from radically different backgrounds. These projects can serve as a way for us to answer the question that Jesus was asked, "But who is my neighbor?" (Luke 10:29). Yet further these projects can challenge how to fulfill Jesus' second commandment of “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Mark 12:31, Matthew 22:39).

I will argue that a different model could be used. Short-term mission trips could be based on long-term reciprocal relationships that blur the lines between helper and helpee. These kind of relationships would allow for each other's gifts to be shared and appreciated. I will present case studies of existing reciprocal relationships and the best practices learned from these relationships. By presenting these case studies, I hope to further the academic research into these seldom-studied relationships, as well as provide examples for people wanting to start these kinds of relationships.

Throughout the thesis I will draw on my own experiences as a participant and leader of mission trips, recent scholarship and popular works on this topic, interviews with people around the world involved in all facets of mission trips, and the research undertaken last academic year in an independent study by Margaret Webb (PTS MDiv 2013) and me.

If you are curious about Margaret and my research from last year, check out this website we built.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Debate about Teach for America

Yesterday I read a critique of Teach for America on Slate by a former alumna and now Professor of Education. 

Today I posted that critique to Facebook. A friend, an employee of TFA, sent me a critique of the Slate article by another employee of TFA, Justin "Juice" Fong. These two articles are getting a lot of comments on my Facebook wall and I want to get in more of a dialogue. I have friends who have done TFA and love it and I have friends who despise it. Please keep it civil. 

Below is my critique of Fong's critique:

I have read other posts by Fong before, so I am aware of him and his writings about TFA. Overall I think it is a good critique, but it raises more questions for me.

I am glad TFA is trying to get people to stay past two years. Why not do something bold and make it a five year commitment? I know of a program like that in Chicago. I talk to Princeton students who will go do two years in US and then go to graduate school or law school. They specifically do TFA because it will look good on resumes when they want to apply. 

Also I would argue that ending up in an education nonprofit is not the same thing as staying in a classroom teaching. I think that is what the Slate author is implying that people aren't staying in the classroom. I would love to see that data from RI about how many stayed in the actual classroom. Is it half of 70%? Or 3/4th? What will it look like in 10 years? What is TFA's goal for retention? Fong himself 10 years later isn't in a classroom. So are disadvantaged students supposed to accept having a new teacher their whole school career, just because they go to a school with a lot of TFA staff and turnover because of it? 

Another critique that I have heard and the Slate author alluded to is that TFA is more interested in Ivy League and top private school students than public school students. What are the stats? Yes it is good that the corps are getting more diverse but where are they coming from? Lets talk about the differences in privilege of a Ivy League student compared to a public university student. Also how many are education  
majors? Seeing posters around my college back in 2007, I received the impression that they wanted everyone besides education majors?

When a school district is downsizes, does TFA downsizes its corps accordingly? Or are long term teachers losing their jobs to TFA members? What is TFA doing in Chicago, for example? (My friend at TFA responded that some Corps members did lose their jobs as well as alumni in both Chicago and Philadelphia.) Is TFA sending less corps members there because of that, so there is room for new teachers who have MATs who want to teach there?

What about the Slate author proposal of having TFA members be co-teachers with a veteran teacher or teaching assistants for the first year? Wouldn't that help members receive more training and students to have an incredible education experience.

I think it is sad for Fong to compare SAT scores of Education majors with college GPA of TFA members. Really that is not the same comparison at all. So no one can be a good teacher if they didn't do well on a test in high school? One of my teachers in high school didn't complete college until late in life (if she ever did), but damn she was one of my best teachers ever and had other teachers' respect. Over my life, committed teachers have help me more and they probably were not always the top of their college class. Yes it would help to have more smart teachers, but I would want teachers who are passionate for the job too and in it for the long haul.

What do you think? Hopefully Juice will answer some of my questions because I would like to hear his responses.