“A happy soul is the best shield for a cruel world.” Atticus – Happiness
How do you stay happy in a cruel world?
When bad things happen, students have to make choices about how they’ll protect themselves. Some choose to fight back against the people or events which caused them pain, thinking that they have the power to change the world into something better. Others recoil and focus on changing their internal attitude, hoping that by doing that they can maintain happiness no matter what happens.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts with Adrienne Borders for a conversation about the best ways to navigate a cruel world. Should we turn inward and make our own happiness or is there a better way to build a shield so we can survive?
Image source: Wikimedia Commons © Marie-Lan Nguyen
Hello, Steve and Dan Fouts here. We’re veteran educators from Illinois who’ve created the Teach Different podcasts to model how to have unforgettable conversations using a super simple three step protocol and quotations from some of the world’s great thinkers. This protocol works with students of all ages and all types of classrooms, and can be used in online or face-to-face environments. So, if you’re a teacher, administrator, social emotional learning specialist, or anybody who loves the art of conversations, you’ve come to the right place. Welcome.
Dan Fouts: 00:37
Well, welcome everybody to The Teach Different podcast this week. We have a quote from Atticus, who was a Greco Roman politician and Sophus who served as the Roman senator. Okay, so we’re going way back here for our quotation today on happiness, where some other themes might emerge from the quote that we’ll share. We’ll do that in a minute, of course. But just to remind everybody, if you’re new to the Teach Different podcast, we have a protocol that we follow for this conversation where we look at a quote, we talk about the claim of the quote, what does it mean, and then about halfway into the conversation, we’ll shift to the counterclaim of the quote, which is the way to obviously push against whatever the author of the quote is saying. That’s when it really heats up, so to speak. Then we like to end with an essential question to give you something to think about and something for your students to think about. Now we’re going to have one guest today, Adrian, and she’ll be introducing herself in a minute here. But remember, we’re going to be discussing this as educators, but we really want you to take this quotation back to your students, if you think it’s something they would find valuable. So, with that, let’s get started.
Here is the quote. A great one I think. “A happy soul is the best shield for a cruel world.” Alright, would anyone like to begin? What does this mean?
Adrienne Borders: 2:25 – Claim
I can start us off. My name is Adrienne Borders, and I teach in a small city in Sonoma County in Northern California. I’ve been a classroom teacher for about four years non-consecutively. In those four years, I’ve somehow taught almost all social studies courses, which has been a fun ride. How I interpreted this quote is that your happiness, or your inner peace, does not have to be determined by the problems of the world around you. That was just kind of how I tried to translate it into my own everyday language. Inner peace can be attained and not broken down by injustice or a lack of humanity that you might experience from other people. I don’t know if that’s how you two also interpreted it.
Steve Fouts: 3:18
That was really close to mine. I like the phrase inner peace. The end of the quote talks about a best shield for a cruel world, and the only way to have that shield is to have something inner, because the outer is not doing well. I like that phrase, inner peace. I’m thinking of putting a quote like this on the board. My first thought is that I would circle the word cruel, maybe even before I asked for the claim of the quote, and just get everybody on the same page as to what this word means in this context. I think that maybe even asking the students, In what way is the world cruel sometimes?
Dan Fouts: 4:19
Yeah, that’s interesting. I like the idea of starting with what is cruel to you. How do you define what cruel is? We know, I would hope, the kids would probably start talking about the pandemic immediately. Like you talk about cruelty. What happened in the last year? I mean, no one really expected this and all of the things that have happened as a result of it. They might talk about that. What else, Adrian, do you think they would talk about? Earthquakes and natural disasters? What do you think that’s interesting?
Adrienne Borders: 4:50
Yeah. I mean, I love the idea of having them kind of break down the word cruel here before they even interpret the entire quote. I was thinking, at worst, some students might know that the world is cruel from experiencing trauma or injustice. But, at the very least, we know they’ve all experienced cruelty from other kids from early in life, like kids developing their social skills can be so mean and so unfiltered. It could be really productive to have them share ideas of cruelty in the world, and maybe not get too personal about it. But, just sharing examples, there’s definitely a wealth of knowledge there.
Dan Fouts: 5:37
Although sometimes they do get personal, right, Adrian? I’d love to ask you, how do you deal with that when they get personal and talk about cruelty in that way?
Adrienne Borders: 5:51
In some really rich discussions I’ve had in my classroom in the past, if a student says something tough, like one student comes to mind, she was sharing that her grandma rejected her sexuality, she had come out and her grandma rejected her. And so my go to when they finish talking is always to thank them for sharing, and tell them, “that took a lot of courage or vulnerability to share with us.” It can be hard to navigate, and so sometimes I try to honor the personal moment that they’re sharing, because they got something out of that. I try to honor that, but then also make it more general, so they don’t feel like the spotlight is lasting on them too long. Then, I try to bring it back to general patterns, or people at large. Even better is priming a discussion when you know personal stuff will come up. I don’t know how either of you go about that. I’m still trying to develop my skills around discussion norms leading up to a discussion. So do either of you have strategies for that?
Dan Fouts: 7:04
For just coming up with norms on how to discuss things before you even do it?
Adrienne Borders: 7:09
Yeah, and making sure that students feel safe when they share something vulnerable. There’s that risk of experiencing backlash from another student in the classroom.
Dan Fouts: 7:18
It’s funny, I’ve never been good at giving them a list of norms or rules or whatever, and then saying, okay we’re going to be following these during the discussion. Usually, what I end up doing is having it come up in a discussion where someone says something sensitive, and then, as you said, acknowledge it and say, that was very courageous what you said, and then generalize it, as you just described. I think I do it by modeling. I guess that’s a long way to answer your question. Then immediately the kids think of your classroom as a safe place.
Adrienne Borders: 8:02
Totally. I think that just takes a lot of skill and expertise on your part to do that on the fly. That’s really admirable. Sometimes those systems are pre-agreed upon norms and can be a good fallback. But, that’s great if you can just do that on the fly.
Steve Fouts: 8:22
I think norms are a good idea in certain contexts, because these are going to be sensitive conversations. It’s helpful for some students to have some kind of an idea of what the boundaries are. I do like that idea.
Dan Fouts: 8:44
Yeah, definitely pointing out and acknowledging when you see things that you want to see in discussions that are very healthy. It’s a little bit of a blend of both.
Steve Fouts: 8:53
Getting back to the quote. Another thing that interested me about it is this idea that a happy soul is the best shield for a cruel world. Shield is not a bad word to talk about, as well. What is the implication of using a word like that in this quote? A shield is what? What does it do? It protects, right? To get the students to somehow think about different ways that they might protect themselves in a cruel world, and why a happy soul is such an insight into it. Now, I’m kind of creeping toward the counterclaim in a way. Don’t go there yet. I’m not going to, but shield is a really powerful word in this quote, I was just bringing attention to it.
Adrienne Borders: 9:58
Right, it seems to reflect you’re on your own, or it’s you against the world, you have to protect yourself from the world. There’s at least some wisdom here about protecting your own mental emotional health while living in an imperfect place and knowing that life isn’t perfect. So, it accepts some cruelty. Maybe I’m getting into the counterclaim again, but don’t we all accept some cruelty of the world? You can only protect yourself and hopefully some others as well.
Dan Fouts: 10:33
Yeah, and I would add to that, if you focus on a happy soul being the best shield for a cruel world, then your attitude is the thing that is more powerful than what the world throws at you. I find this quote to be very empowering. It’s almost like saying, you are stronger than you think. You can use your happiness, your attitude, your mental outlet, and your mindset, to shield yourself, to protect yourself. It’s a very positive affirming kind of claim that he’s making. I don’t think a lot of kids realize the power that they have over their own mind to make situations good that are otherwise bad. I think this is getting at that.
Steve Fouts: 11:30
I’m gonna just push back a tiny bit on this. I think we all did this, and I want to challenge us all right now on this idea of a happy soul is the best shield. We’ve been talking about that inner peace, right? This ability to change your attitude and make yourself happy as your shield in a cruel world. But, if you read the quote and try to stay true to the text, he doesn’t say anything about how you get your soul happy. Okay, I can see some students looking at this and saying, well, obviously a happy soul is the best shield. When things go my way I don’t have to worry about the cruel world. But, they’re not associating it with their own agency. They may be thinking they’re lucky, or maybe I’m reading too much into this. I feel like some students might point that out.
Adrienne Borders: 12:30
To speak first to what Dan was saying. It’s a great point that the quote is empowering since students don’t have full agency over their lives, yet, as adolescents, right? But, they do have some kind of power over their inner world, their mentality, their attitude, how they respond to life. That’s also a good point, Steve, because what stood out to me is a happy soul is the goal, so what’s the shield that is actually created? It seems like a shield should be something else, something that protects that happy soul from a cruel world.
Steve Fouts: 13:11
An exciting quote, the more you look at it. Happy is a pretty easy word to understand, soul I don’t know, maybe that’s a discussion as well. But, I feel like we’ve come to the reckoning, right?
Dan Fouts: 13:27
Wait, before we get to the reckoning of going into the soul thing, some kids will read this as spiritual too, I bet. That’s something to prepare for. If you use this with students, some will say doing the right thing, or being happy, having your soul happy, is believing in God or believing that everything is going to be okay in a religious context. Adrian, I don’t know if you experienced this in some of your classes, but this is where you have your religious minded students creeping out and sharing a few things hoping to be accepted. Then you have your more secular students who don’t believe in any higher power. That can be a little dicey as well. That’s another thing to prepare for with this quote.
Adrienne Borders: 14:18
I don’t think I’d even considered that. Some students of mine might say, I don’t have a soul. We don’t have souls. But, then I have some other students who, it became clear, were Christian when we were studying imperialism and the role that Christianity played in that. They take a lot of pride in that religion. That can come up and that’s just another layer to prepare for here.
Dan Fouts: 14:45
Another layer, for sure. As this was, I believe 100 years ago when this quote was said, I’d have to look at that again, but the word soul was possibly used in a different sense than religious. You’d have to decide whether or not you’d want to get into that. That might get too complicated. You might want to skip through that. Okay, Steve, go ahead. Sorry to interrupt you before.
Steve Fouts: 15:14
I don’t have much to say because I want to challenge other people with what is a really good counterclaim to this? You could keep the best shield for the cruel world and make the counterclaim not a happy soul, but maybe something else that would ensure your safety in a cruel world. I think that’s the thing that makes the most sense. But, I want to hear what you all think. I mean, what’s the best way to look at this differently?
Adrienne Borders: 15:51
For the quote to say have a happy soul and you’ll be protected from a cruel world with no wisdom around how you cultivate that happy soul makes me think of toxic positivity, faking a smile and toughing it out, or ignoring problems around you and just sticking your head in the sand.
Steve Fouts: 16:19
Acting like everything is fine, and you’re not really addressing reality.
Dan Fouts: 16:27 – Counterclaim
Right, which might put you in a worse situation if you do that. You might be momentarily happy, but it’s a fake foundationless happiness that is going to end up getting you into trouble later. I had another way to think of a counterclaim. Depending on what the kids think cruelty is, whether they brought it up at the end, what the cruel world looks like. If some kids talked about bullying, for instance, Adrian, you brought that up, right? You talked about bullying? A counterclaim would be “fighting back is the best shield for a cruel world.” Don’t just sit around and smile and think that things are going to be okay. You have to fight back and stand up for yourself. If there’s injustice, you stand up to injustice, you don’t just develop this positive mindset and say things are going to be okay. There’s got to be some fight in you.
Steve Fouts: 17:30
I could build off that. The population that I worked with most of my career, Adrian, was middle and high school students on the west side of Chicago, from underserved neighborhoods with very challenging environments. I would say that they would understand the word cruel, probably better than some, and if they were going to give advice to each other on how you survive this, the first answer probably wouldn’t be “have a happy soul.” It would be, watch your back, get a lot of friends. It would be more visceral. And their idea of protection would be something that would prevent them from having to go through traumatic experiences. It’s not a happy soul. It’s a constant contentiousness. Just be careful about what you’re doing, where you are, your surroundings. Being vigilant is the best shield for a cruel world. You know, and I’m just throwing a different mindset here. But Adrian, I want to hear from you.
Adrienne Borders: 18:50
The weaknesses of this quote, actually might make it serve better for an SEL type lesson with them identifying that this quote is just telling me to be happy. Maybe critiquing a few quotes, and then trying to apply those quotes to actual strategies, to build skills and strategies. I feel like it could be a hook for some kind of lesson around coping mechanisms, or skills for social emotional learning.
Steve Fouts: 19:33
I like that they call that explicit social emotional learning instruction, where it’s not tied to academic content, but it’s deep. I really like that word coping, because what’s really happening here? I’m trying to think of the familiar phrase in social emotional learning. They might use something like anger management, or self-regulation. I don’t know what the fancy word is, but I sure understand coping, and that is an SEL skill. So, I really liked that.
Dan Fouts: 20:09
I’m wondering if we can think about using it with content. Can you think of any way we could use it in conjunction with content, Adrienne?
Adrienne Borders: 20:19
The first thing that jumped out to me is that since this is a Greco Roman thinker and politician, I thought maybe some kind of Socratic seminar during the first unit. I teach world history which starts out with ancient Athenian political philosophy, then Greco Roman political philosophy, and then we fast forward to the enlightenment. Maybe some kind of Socratic seminar, because it’s fun to play around with political philosophy early on to get them to not only understand the ideas emerging from that city at that time, but to try to put them in the shoes of philosophers. This will be one way to do that. Use a quote from the time. What about you? Did you think of something different?
Dan Fouts: 21:06
Well, I’m just thinking on my feet here about any U.S. history class. I taught that for 15 years. Any group in American history who has suffered cruelty on some level, let’s just take the women’s rights movement. There’s a sense of cruelty there. It’s different, of course, than in other movements, like the abolitionist movement. You could use this quote for 20 to 30 minutes of a conversation to get the kids thinking about how powerful a happy soul or an attitude is? Is that the best shield for a cruel world? Do you have to fight back? Set that up for the kids, then teach the unit about what people did to fight against injustice. Revisit it later and just say, well, was that the right way? Was that a better shield for a cruel world to actually fight back and demand your rights? I’m just thinking out loud here.
Adrienne Borders: 22:18
I’ve only taught U.S. History once. But, what you’re saying reminds me of trying to teach all the vast human-interest stories from the Gilded Age and the Progressive Era. There’s a lot of different demographic stories to explore there, and so maybe you could have something where students’ study one type of person or leader from the Progressive Era from some different demographic groups, then you present them with this quote and say, how would your person respond to this quote? Something like that.
Steve Fouts: 22:52
Love it. That is fantastic. Go straight forward, simple and powerful. How would this person respond to this quote?
Dan Fouts: 22:58
Think of doing that with five figures in the progressive movement? You have an unbelievably interesting discussion connected to content in this quote.
Steve Fouts: 23:09
The immediate thing I thought of was Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the different ways they dealt with racial injustice. What would Malcolm X think of this quote? What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. think of it? They really had a different approach to this world that they both found themselves in and had many more similarities than differences. But, they were very divergent for a while in their lives, and I think this quote would bring that out.
Adrienne Borders: 23:41
Yeah, that would make that clear. I think that’s a challenge with teaching the civil rights movement, as well as the ways that it branched out and actually became diversified and had different sectors or different philosophies, right? That would be a good way to compare and contrast those different parts of the civil rights movement.
Dan Fouts: 24:02
Good. Those are some really interesting curriculum connections. Again, the beautiful thing about these conversations is you can use them as a SEL conversation for some sort of skill, unrelated to your content. But, if you just think a little bit, you can fit it into your academic content and do it in a creative way. I really like the idea of taking historical figures, asking the kids to adopt those personas, and then as that persona interpret something like this. That gets the kids out of their own head and literally thinking about how another person would view this quotation. That’s critical thinking. I mean, that’s it. That’s a difficult activity, but a really good one.
Adrienne Borders: 24:56
Yeah, it’s kind of reminding me of one of your lesson structures that I saw on your blog website about students or a teacher embodying a historical figure and then asking the students to interview them. It reminds me of that too.
Dan Fouts: 25:13
Yeah, the “interview me activity.” I did a post on that. Kids love to act like that. Well, not all of them, but there’s going to be five in your room who will love acting this out.
Adrienne Borders: 25:26
Yeah, wax museums are becoming more popular at the elementary level. Have either of you heard of those? I’ve heard a little bit about them, but don’t know much. Students spend time learning about a historical figure, then they put on this wax museum where they stand in an outfit frozen as a person. Somebody comes up to their poster board and presentation, presses some kind of button to bring the student to life so they can answer questions and talk as if they’re that historical figure. Kind of like the movie, “A Night at the Museum.”
Dan Fouts: 26:05
Oh, great. This has been fantastic. I think that we really unpacked this quote in interesting ways. Like we’ve done with other quotations, we found some words that need to be unpacked first – shield and cruel. Those are words you might want to focus on before you even start this full-blown conversation so that all the kids get on the same page. They’re not going to be on the same page. They’re going to have different perspectives of the words, which is obviously part of a good conversation.
Adrienne Borders: 26:44
I appreciate that point about trying to get them to break down words before you read, because one of the four historical thinking skills is close reading, and I feel like it’s the one I make the least time for. This is a good way to practice that, and then hopefully there’s some carryover to breaking down other primary sources.
Steve Fouts: 27:14
Adrienne, so well said. I’m going to put this out there and tell me if you agree. The reason why we end up just rushing and not slowing down to define these really interesting words is that there’s so much to read. What we’re asking them to do with these activities is complex, but when you simplify it, and put a quote on the board that’s so insightful, it provides the context to really get into the words. I think that it might be as simple as that. The shorter the text, the deeper you can go. Then the hope is that when they go back to complex text, they’re going to be going deeper when they feel like they need to because they’ve had that experience.
Adrienne Borders: 28:03
Yeah, right. It’s just a great short training for that skill. I like the way you said the shorter the quote is, the deeper you can go with it.
Dan Fouts: 28:13
Yeah. What we’re asking the kids to do with this quotation is just as complex. It’s just as philosophical and complex as reading a long primary source, but it’s reducing the variables you have to deal with in getting them to think deeply about it. Some kids just shut down when the reading is too long, so this might help.
Adrienne Borders: 28:39
Well, yeah, if they just had English class, they’re thinking, I didn’t come to history to read more.
Dan Fouts: 28:45 – Essential Question
I’ve heard that so many times. Well, again, what a wonderful conversation we had tonight. We always end with a provocative essential question to get us thinking. Teachers can use this with their students to either connect it to content or SEL. Here’s the essential question we came up with. A lot of times the students will come up with the essential question in the conversation, so we have to be ready to grab them when they come up. But, here’s one to think about. How do you stay happy in a cruel world?
Adrienne Borders: 29:33
I think that’s it. How do you achieve this happy soul that we’re hearing about?
Dan Fouts: 29:41
We can all agree it’s important. How do we get there?
Steve Fouts: 29:44
Atticus did not provide directions.
Dan Fouts: 29:49
It was wisdom without direction. Well, thank you, Adrian. It was really nice having you on the show here and we appreciate your content.
Well, thanks so much. This was delightful. I appreciate the invite.
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