Tag Archives: Community

Travel Guide: Melbourne

Here is the third installment of our October break trip to Australia! We started in Sydney, drove down the coast, and ended up here in Melbourne, which I absolutely loved.

We arrived in sunny Melbourne after leaving Lakes Entrance in the rain, so it was already off to a good start. We checked into our third and loveliest Airbnb with floor-to-ceiling windows that gave us views that reminded me just a little of New York – and made me realize that I miss it! The rest of the city did much of the same.

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We ate a very late lunch and then began to wander, which is my favorite way to get to know any new place. I loved the hustle and bustle of the streets full of shops, people, and streetcars. I loved feeling neighborhoods blend and change. I loved being with so many people after thoroughly enjoying the exact opposite on the road. Many people were dressed head-to-toe in black, which we hadn’t seen elsewhere in Australia, and there were little alleyways and hidden streets with shops, restaurants, and cafés. Australia’s same-sex marriage vote was ongoing and there was pride everywhere, which was so great to see. It had been the same in beachy, chill Sydney but much more creative in bolder, grittier Melbourne.

Our first stop was the State Library of Victoria because we had read that it was pretty. And, truth be told, I adore libraries and don’t really need a reason to visit. I’ve waxed poetic about the NYPL more than once and still donate to them (because I just realized that I can still download e-books!).

Because libraries are the best, there was a free exhibit on the history of Australia since colonization and we thoroughly explored it. As in the Australian Museum in Sydney, I read everything in the exhibit and really enjoyed it because Australia’s history isn’t something I’ve ever formally studied. Outside the library, people were playing chess with giant chess sets. So cool! So community-oriented!

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The next day was our only full day in Melbourne and I loved every moment of it. We spent the morning at Queen Victoria Market, though I could have been there for so much longer. I seek out markets in every country I visit and they’re always a highlight. Since I love fresh vegetables and seek out anything locally sourced and locally grown, I would have loved to buy produce and other ingredients to cook dinner. Alas, we’d made a reservation at a very hip, cool restaurant and I didn’t want to miss it!

I did, however, have the foresight to ask my friends to arrange a meeting place and time in case we get separated. I’m a kid in a candy store when it comes to markets (and bookstores and libraries) and envisioned wandering off. Self-fulfilling prophecy.

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In addition to some cool local artists’ stands that I felt badly photographing without buying, Queen Victoria Market had a section for stuff . . .

. . . a section for produce and an entire building for perishable food items . . .

. . . and a bunch of restaurant and coffee shop stands. The picture below of the sign is specifically for my dad, who introduced me to (and perhaps invented) the word “under-caffeinated” many years ago. Caffeine, specifically from black coffee, plays a very important role in my family; claiming under-caffeination is the best way to get anyone to empathize when you’re having a moment or in a mood.

In the afternoon, we tracked down some of Melbourne’s famed graffiti streets, which we overheard a tour guide tell his group change almost nightly. It was really neat because nothing on these streets escaped the artists’ hand. There’s clearly a set of rules and norms that are associated with these streets and I’d love to know what they are. I didn’t see anything that could be considered obscene or anything that looked like it was encroaching on anyone else’s work. The streets seemed to be art, and respected like street art usually is, rather than graffiti, which sometimes seems more hurried, frazzled, and incomplete. I took a lot of pictures and narrowed down the list as best I could, but I really just want to share all of them!

We walked along the quiet, still Yarra River that afternoon. It was the only hot day we had in Australia and there was a noticeable heaviness to the air that we hadn’t felt since Singapore.

It was a nice break from the noise of downtown but somehow left me itching to return to the flurry of daily living that was present in the city streets. No one else shared this sentiment, but I don’t mind being out and about alone. I found another pedestrian alleyway, this one full of open-air restaurants and bars, and sat down at a popping wine bar. I flipped past the wine list and promptly ordered a beer, sneakily munching on the granola I had in my backpack.

I people-watched and journaled for a good hour. Some of my best personal reflection has been while traveling because I consider travel as time just for me. And since I’m in new places, or at least places different from the everyday, I seek out new things that make me reflect in myriad ways. I usually don’t travel with cellular data and don’t seek out wifi, so it’s easy to remain in the moment. I generally don’t miss being connected, either. It’s nice to be able to sit and dream every now and then without feeling obligated to do something else or be part of something else.

Melbourne, you are a vibrant, energetic, and liberating place. Thanks for ending the week in Australia on such a high note.

Judaism Without Religion

The Most Current Version of You
Being in a new place provides incredible freedom to be the most current version of yourself. We are all constantly learning, changing, growing, and adapting, but sometimes it’s challenging to openly do that around people who have certain expectations of us, certain experiences with who we are and desires for who we should be.

In a new place, however, meeting people who have no experiences with, or expectations for, you and your behavior means that you enter with a clean slate. You present the newest version of yourself because that’s who you fundamentally are in the given moment. There’s no one telling you otherwise, surprised when you respond a certain way, or waiting for you to do A when you really want to do B.

While I’m not new to Singapore, I am meeting new people both at work and outside of work. This has given me an opportunity to present myself with the background of the past year, a year during which I learned a lot, experienced a lot, read a lot, and gained some clarity about the way that I understand the world and myself.

My Jewish Self
About two months ago, I had a conversation with a new friend in which I described myself as culturally Jewish and denied feeling a sense of traditionally “religious” connection to the group that I’ve affiliated with for my entire life. I talked about religious practice as a way of connecting with a community separate from having any sort of “belief” in anything supernatural. I also acknowledged that this understanding, the separation between culture and religion, had been an extended process, one that I was only beginning to feel comfortable articulating.

Recently, my friend reminded me of that conversation. “But,” he added, “I think you’re a lot more spiritual than you said. Maybe not quite religious, but you’re not just doing what you’re doing and thinking what you’re thinking in order to maintain a cultural connection with a group. It seems like there’s something else.”

I smiled. He wasn’t wrong. I had described myself as spiritual rather than religious for years and have only recently (in the current iteration of myself, in fact) stopped doing that, opting instead to speak more broadly of culture. So in that sense, my friend wasn’t right, either.

Reflecting on that conversation, and appreciating both my friend’s perceptivity and his willingness to highlight what he saw as incongruence between what I said about myself and what I did (specifically in reference to taking off work on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, so that I could go to synagogue and pray), has left me thinking about my trek from a belief in a higher entity to where I am now.

Religiosity
Being religious means following the letter of a specific text for no other reason than the text is called sacred. It means believing that there’s a higher being, likely omniscient and all-powerful, controlling the Earth and the skies, the world and its people. It’s the tradition of replying, “Blessed is God” when asked how you’re doing, of ceasing all work after sunset on the day of rest, of avoiding certain substances because of their uncleanliness or mind-altering properties.

Being religious means praying about real questions, like whether to go ahead with plans that seem dependent on the weather, and believing that you have been given (though not that you’ve found) a real answer. Often, being religious also means denying scientific explanations for phenomena that we see in nature and in ourselves. Instead of searching for the answers, being religious means trusting (having faith) that the answers will be revealed, all in good time.

Truly, I do not want to sound disparaging. I did not grow up in a religious household but I did attend a religious school. As a child, I was taught many of the views and practices described above and I clung to them because they helped me organize my world. They helped me find comfort in what I did not understand and could not otherwise handle. From that perspective, I appreciate the good that religion does for individuals. I have experienced its calming influence and sense of security.

But, as a student and teacher of history, I have also learned to be wary of religion. Countless wars. Death. Destruction. Avoidance of responsibility. Lack of political action. Barriers to scientific research. Discrimination. Hatred.

No one person’s belief should cause such anguish to others.

What I Used to Call Spirituality
It has been a long time since I’ve held any specific religious views and a very long time since I’ve sighed with resignation and performed (or not) an action because of a supernatural being. But I still find joy in community experiences that have religious origins. What stands out to me in these experiences, however, is not the religion but the collectivism, the understanding that we are all coming together because we value one another as individuals and have chosen to create a community.

An example to illustrate:

I was last in Israel with the grade 8 students at my school and we spent our first Shabbat (Hebrew for Sabbath) together as a group in Jerusalem. According to Jewish tradition, the day begins at sundown (because, as scripture says, “It was evening and it was morning. The . . . day.”) and we walked up to a sort of promenade overlooking the Old City. It was dark and we could see some cars still out and about, but for the most part, it was quiet.

We sat in a circle for the Friday evening prayer service, which is full of singing to welcome Shabbat. At one point, a few of the kids stood up and starting dancing. Before the rest of us quite knew what was happening, we were all on our feet, singing and dancing, laughing in our circle overlooking ancient history, juxtaposed with modernity in the cars and neon lights just below us.

My heart caught in my throat and there were tears in my eyes. To feel so much a part of something, to be in this beautiful place with my friends and my students. There was a very real collective energy in the air, an understanding that each of us had a place in the community we had created.

So for me, it wasn’t the prayer. It wasn’t the religious aspect of ceasing work Friday night to sing songs welcoming the day of rest. It was the fact that we were all together as a group, that everyone was welcomed and valued as an integral part of the community. For many present, this was a religious experience. But for me, this was a moment of transcendence because of the community itself regardless of the religious elements around which the community coalesced.

And that means that none of this has anything to do with spirituality at all.

What is Actually Cultural . . . and Then Some
Talking this over, another friend reminded me that finding joy in shared experiences is a common element of humanity. As humans we strive to connect to others, to relate to them and find a sense of belonging with them. Humans are social, tribal animals and we develop groups to help us feel a sense of safety and security. We like to be together because we survive better in groups than we do on our own. We support others in order to feel a part of their lives and to let them in as a part of ours. Culturally, we seek out connection with those around us because it makes us happier.

Additionally, sharing this experience with students was a moment of pride for me as an educator. My students had set aside their differences for a time and come together out of the sheer joy of the experience, the release of inhibition that comes from total engagement singing and dancing in the open air.

Looking around at my colleagues, I saw my own happiness and love reflected on their faces. We’d been traveling with students for about three days at that point and we were anxious and tired (and getting tired of them) but in that moment, it didn’t matter. That was why we worked as hard as we did. That was why we put up with what we did. We had worked to build a community and we were watching it develop and grow.

What was significant, then, on that promenade overlooking Jerusalem, was the sense of belonging that comes from being part of a group and the joy that stems from positive engagement with others. For me, then, this was a cultural experience.

A cultural experience . . . and then some. We can think about culture in terms of the anything that makes up the way of life of a group of people. This includes what we immediately see (food, clothing, celebrations) and also what we don’t immediately see but might be able to figure out given time (concepts of beauty, ideas of success, what constitutes a good life). Belonging, connection, relatedness, and shared experiences are all part of culture but exist on their own, too. So this experience was cultural, yes, but there’s more than culture that matters here. There’s an emphasis on shared humanity that transcends the culture of any one group.


As always, I’m glad for the dialogue that sparked these reflections. I’m glad to have a deeper understanding of myself from looking through the eyes of others and letting their ideas probe my own. I’m always willing to think, discuss, and clarify and it’s helpful to be around people who are responsive to that.

Building Peace: Choosing Our Words

This post was initially supposed to be about mental health in the classroom because of a PD from this week. However, I was sidetracked by a conversation I overheard on the train on the way to the  café where I am now. (If you clicked on the link and are imagining the delectable smell of cinnamon rugelach, you’re right here with me.)

As a result, I’ve reframed this post as a discussion about the power of language with a specific focus on how we talk to children and to students in our classrooms.

The Conversation
I don’t always eavesdrop on the people on either side of me on the subway platform, but I generally start to pay attention when I hear the voices of very young children. That’s mostly because I think they’re adorable but also because I’m curious about parenting. My mother is an early childhood educator and has always maintained a running commentary on how people dress, talk to, and generally treat their children in public. Though I am not a parent myself but really hope to be someday, my mother’s ideas have influenced my opinions on parents and parenting. As an educator, I know that deliberate language makes a huge difference in many activities that take place in the classroom, including the formation of relationships between teachers and students.

The conversation I overheard just a few minutes ago reminded me how important it is for parents to also be cognizant of how they talk to their children and what they say when their children are around. I wasn’t paying attention until the little girl in a tutu and ballet bun tried to break into her parents’ heated discussion. I caught phrases like “if we have a boy” and “you can’t just save all that money” and “she also wants to have a career”. The child tried three times before being able to complete a sentence, stopping herself when neither parent glanced at her as they continued speaking. When her parents finally paused, the little girl announced, “Yeah, Dad, and you don’t do nothing with me!”

Both ignored her. The train arrived and all three squeezed inside.

The non-interaction made my heart hurt.

How We Talk
Two things in particular stood out to me regarding the parents’ dismissal of their child and what the child had actually said:

  1. Need for acknowledgement. When a child clearly wants to speak, the adults in discussion need to acknowledge the child’s desire to participate and let the child know when it is an appropriate time to do so. We want our children and students to be able to engage in dialogue, a true back-and-forth exchange of ideas and opinions. We want them to develop autonomy, agency, and a sense of empowerment in their ability to express themselves. If we ever expect them to talk, we need to listen when they’re ready. This happens constantly in the classroom when students want their voices heard. I can’t try to count the number of times I have said something like, “Hold on, someone else is talking now” and then followed up with, “Okay, what would you like to add?” when the other student had finished. I remember my parents telling us, “Mummy and Daddy are talking right now and in one minute you can say something. Please wait.” Acknowledging that children want to speak and then helping them determine when to do so is essential if we truly want to listen to and interact with one another in any capacity.
  2. Awareness of surroundings. Regardless of what her parents were arguing over, I know that this girl had heard too much. She was probably around four years old and clearly parroting what she’d been told about her father or what she’d overheard others say. I expect she’d heard her parents engage in a similar exchange more than once before since she was so intent on this particular phrase. “You don’t do nothing with me.” Does she even know what it means? She very happily grabbed her dad’s hand as they boarded the train, so I suspect not. When we speak, we are modeling behavior. If we want our children to grow into respectful young people and ultimately respectful adults who care about those around them, we need to model respectful language. Students hear the words that we use and absorb them. We send messages that we don’t realize we’re sending. Certain words and phrases stand out more than others and we don’t necessarily know what children will latch onto. Young people hear a lot and interpret what they hear. If we want to cultivate certain ideas over others, we need to be careful that it is those ideas we express when we’re speaking.

Why It Matters
Actions and words create environments and expectations. This is true at school, at home, and in the workplace. In the heat of the moment, that’s easy to forget. We all make mistakes and we all say things that should be left unsaid. From a pedagogical perspective, I try to be very aware of what I say and do in order to create a classroom environment where students feel accepted, validated, safe, and important. I make choices about the words I use, ideas I express, how I deal with challenges, and how I interact with students in order to create that classroom environment and culture. I can’t expect my students to act a certain way if I don’t explicitly show them what that is and insist that they engage that way with each other.

“People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou

We all know that words matter. A lot. In each of our interactions, we need to remember that the connection we form with others does not disappear when we stop talking and part ways. I don’t always know what the people around me take away from the time we’ve spent together, but I do know what I take away. Young people are constantly learning from example, which is why I urge mindfulness in all interaction, verbal and nonverbal. If I want my students to work to construct a better, more peaceful world I have to work on that with them at a micro level before I can expect them to do that on a global scale.


The conversation I overheard on the subway platform is also relevant in terms of a really excellent presentation from PD this week about dealing with mental health issues in the classroom. I have always been interested in mental health and I’ve taught psychology in the past so little in this presentation was new in itself, but it was refreshing to attend a PD session focused on supporting students with mental health issues.

We don’t talk about mental health often enough. I’ve been trying to raise awareness about educational issues lately, which is why I want to share some thoughts on mental health in the classroom and a resource the presenters introduced that I find very useful.

The Numbers
Most of us are experts at pretending we’re okay when we’re not. When’s the last time someone asked, “How are you?” and you actually answered the question instead of providing the cursory, “Finethankyouhowareyou?” response? Society has decided that we’d rather delude ourselves than actually see the people around us.

This is a problem because many people are not fine at all. In 2014 alone, one in five American adults experienced some kind of mental health issue. It’s also a problem with young people. There has been increasing research about the number of adolescents who are struggling with mental health issues. Suicide rates are the third leading cause of death in young adults ages 15-24, and 90% of those who committed suicide struggled with mental health problems. Being able to talk about openly about mental health is a step in the right direction towards an emphasis on greater well-being for all.

The Need to Talk
Stigma is a huge problem when addressing mental illness. As noted above, we have decided that we are all “fine”. Many people would probably be taken aback if a polite, “How are you?” was followed up with, “I haven’t slept in three months, my appetite is gone, I have almost constant headaches, and I can’t stop thinking about my parents dying in a car accident. How are you?”

The simplest thing for a concerned educator to do is to make mental health awareness part of the classroom community. Teachers are in a position to indicate to students that it is okay for them to feel anything they’re feeling. It is okay for them to ask for help. Many schools have already developed (yay!) a culture around safe spaces for LGBTQ students and we are beginning to do the same for students with mental health concerns. Students need to know that they do not have to be okay all the time. They need to know that mental illness is a very real part of being human. Look at the numbers. We hide it when we avoid talking about it, but it’s more than common.

The clinicians and researchers who ran the PD session provided this website that they have developed as part of their work. This is the first time I’m sharing a teacher resource on this blog and I’m doing it because I think it is so important to allow mental health to be a very real part of classroom dialogue. My AP Psych teacher in high school said that society will have come a long way once we decide it’s as necessary to seek medical help for mental illness as it is for a broken arm. That was 2008. We talk more now than we did then, but it’s still not enough.

From Talk to Action
Let me preface this by saying that I am not trained to treat anyone for anything. That’s not my job. My job is to get to know my students so that I know when something is not right. My job is also to provide a safe space for students who want to talk, have questions or concerns, or need somewhere accepting to go during the day. The language I use, behaviors I model, topics I discuss, and the ways in which I interact with my students are very powerful in shaping relationships. There is the necessity of congruence in what I believe, what I claim to want for my students, and how I show that to them.

As I’ve written before and linked above, I believe that peacebuilding is the goal of education. That means purposefully developing real connections with one another, working towards increased well-being for all, and creating a culture in which we are caring and compassionate towards each other. The language that we use goes a long way in promoting this overall aim. With a new school year either very fresh or about to begin, I urge all educators to think about the messages they want to send and they way they go about doing that. Our students deserve a better, more peaceful world. Together, we can build that.


In addition to my educational interests, I am always intrigued about the way language has changed over time. One of my favorite papers in graduate school had me researching the clinical uses of words like “moron” and “idiot”. The next book on my ever-growing To Read list, How Happy Became Homosexual, will likely address some of my curiosities but I’m eager for your thoughts!

Please feel free to comment below. I’d love to hear about the use of language in your classroom/workplace/any area of your life (always aiming for inclusivity here), any educational resources you have about mental health, or your thoughts on/experiences with parenting. Really, I’d like to hear about anything you want to say. I love learning. Thanks for reading!