Beneficent is the disposition of doing good to others. As Jesus’ story about the merciful Samaritan suggests (Luke 10), being kind only to those in our immediate community falls short of Christian love. We are called to love strangers as well as neighbors, and to seek the wellbeing of the wider world. Practices that move us in this direction can include:
- working together on service projects in and beyond our community
- learning about and discussing the needs of other people and how we can help address them
- praying for the needs of others beyond our own group
- reflecting on how our faith should shape our political and civic involvement
- actively seeking ways of contributing to the good of the wider community
- learning about injustices and how they might provoke us to change
High school students are often just beginning to extend their social circles, it is a time when adolescents are acutely conscious of fitting in and of who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’. It is an important time to ask the question ‘who is my neighbor?’ Forming a disposition of beneficent might involve going on a mission trip, or participating in a service learning project but it doesn’t have to; you can begin right in the place that students call home. Consider this example from a classroom in Ontario.
A history teacher was tired of her students’ preoccupation with standards. She wanted them to stop asking the strategic question is this work good enough and ask instead, does this work do good? Her students were studying slavery and the underground route to Canada. Working collaboratively with each other and with expert contemporary authors and anti-slavery campaigners the students compiled their own fictional slave narratives into a published book now being sold to raise money for International Justice Mission Canada. They organized a book launch at a local mall and created an exhibition about the learning experience for parent teacher meetings. The learning in this class was for something bigger than mastering historical method or being familiar with the stories of Canada’s past. The teacher wanted her students to recognize the tragedy that slavery is not just a problem of the past and that many Christians are part of a modern day abolitionist movement. The pedagogic practices that this teacher employed invited students beyond ‘is this good enough’ and to experience that their gifts, voices and learning can do good to the culture, literally changing history. (Adapted from Beth Green, John Rozema Award for Teacher Excellence: Nomination Package, 2016, Hamilton: Cardus).
In this example the teacher re-framed the purpose of learning for students. It became about doing good for others and required excellent work for the good of the other. Participating in this history class widened the circle of relevance for these students, connecting historical and contemporary issues of slavery and injustice to the familiar local neighborhood. The following teaching activities offer further possibilities.
On your own, or with a colleague reflect on the different communities to which your students belong. It works well to draw this as a network map or as a set of concentric circles to visualize who your students might regard as neighbor and stranger. This is also an exercise you can do with students. Think about the examples above: what practices of beneficent do they draw on? Are there similar practices that would create bridges between groups or grow networks for your students?
You can find more examples of teachers working through these questions at the links below:
Whatiflearning.com especially the section headed ‘Our Life Together’.