The Society is delighted to announce this year's winners of the awards for Excellence in the Teaching of Classics at the Precollegiate Level. We congratulate Susan Meyer and Thomas J. (TJ) Howell, who will both receive their awards at the Plenary Session in San Diego. You can read their citations below:
Thomas J. Howell Citation
Thomas J. Howell likes to describe his vision of teaching as “one that marries innovative language pedagogy to deep exploration of topics in an environment where language and humanistic study is welcomed and supported.” Currently at Northampton High School, Massachusetts, Thomas or “TJ”, as his students know him, has taught Latin at the secondary level since 2000. He has developed a highly creative approach to Latin instruction within a four-skills framework. His students are drawn in through “compelling, high-quality, culturally relevant comprehensible input texts”, from Harrius Potter and the incomparable Commentarii de inepto puero (anglice: Diary of a Wimpy Kid) to the Bayeux Tapestry and Catullus. As he likes to tell them, “Latin isn’t a puzzle to be decoded – it’s a language that can be read and understood without translation just like any other.” One of his novel approaches is to adopt hand signs from an instructional system designed to create new speakers for languages on the brink of extinction called “Where are your Keys” (WAYK). These allow students to express stress levels and comprehension, and thus help TJ “address their immediate emotional or intellectual needs without stopping class or drawing undue attention to themselves”. One of his favorite techniques is “Full Check,” where students can communicate to their readiness to acquire language. TJ explains, “If everyone is ‘full’ - perhaps they’re tired, or they’ve had a bad day, or they’re hungry - I’ll change my focus to review already familiar material or tell a myth or a fable”.
WAYK is an oral method and TJ takes presentational speaking, in the new Classical Language Learning Standards, very seriously. Beyond his own classroom, he has taught at the SALVI Rusticatio and Conventiculum Bostoniense for the last several summers, and recently started with the Biduum Minnesotanum. He is an inspiring example to his students. As one of his writers described it, “His command of the Latin language is impeccable and the breadth of his familiarity with Latin texts is simply stunning.” His students respond with enthusiasm. Another writer notes: “The walls of his classroom are decorated with narratives, paintings, projects, and other evidence of student enthusiasm for the subject and competence in the language, and I have seen students participate in a range of activities that indicate the considerable depth and breadth of TJ’s commitment to effective pedagogy”. TJ works hard to foster a sense of belonging. He throws all-student banquets to celebrate National Latin Exam winners and creates projects that bring students together across levels, as when his Latin 2 class did a unit on oracles and the future tense and his level 5s wrote ambiguous answers to their questions. It is no surprise that students want to continue their Latin with TJ. As the teacher of middle school that feeds Northampton High writes, “since he began teaching in Northampton this fall, every parent and student who visits me has told me the same thing: they are loving Latin. They seem to be too busy getting caught up in real communication in the classroom to notice how hard they’re working and how much they’re improving”.
TJ has worked tirelessly to promote the Classics. In partnership with UMass-Boston, he has developed a dual enrollment program for Northampton and contributed significantly to the UMass teacher training program, mentoring no less than fourteen student teachers in their practicums while offering regular SLA workshops to their incoming students. He has contributed professional service all levels, serving as President of the Classical Association of Massachusetts, as CANE blog editor and board member, and as a member of the recent ACTFL committee to reconsider the new Standards for Classical Language Learning. Memorably described as “a master teacher and a consummate professional”, TJ richly deserves a 2018 SCS Award for Excellence in Teaching at the Precollegiate Level.
Susan Meyer Citation
Susan “Magistra” Meyer has taught in Culbreth Middle School, Chapel Hill, since 2010. Her nominator’s words testify vividly to her talents: “Susan is a genius at what she does. If there were a MacArthur Award that accommodated Middle School teachers, I would nominate her for that.” As a more modest prize, the SCS is delighted to recognize Susan with an Excellence in Precollegiate Teaching Award.
The first of the many innovations Susan’s students and colleagues praise is a system she designed to encourage learning for its own sake and foster an inclusive, collaborative community. Fans of Harry Potter will recall the “House System” at Hogwarts. Magistra Susan took the concept of a ‘Latin family’ and created a ‘gens system’ that would randomly sort students into one of four Roman families (Claudians, Julians, Flavians, and Cornelians). Students earn famae or reputation points for their gens for positivity, personal growth, and the pursuit of academic opportunities. They might play Susan’s course on Memrise, a digital vocabulary game, on their bus ride home or make military standards, cartoons, stories, or charters for their gentes in Latin, or even come in early to tutor younger gens members. And yes, famae can be taken away for bad deeds, but on the other hand they are awarded generously when students continue to take Latin after middle school. Lavish famae are given to the gens of an alum who takes AP Latin. One million are awarded, if they become a Latin teacher.
Susan is taking retention to a new level. As she explains, her alumni “are active fixtures” in her classroom. As long as a student is the district, they can stay in the digital classroom until 12th grade. Alumni make posts encouraging their younger gens members to turn in missing work or to dress up for the biannual spirit day competition. They submit T-shirt designs with slogans like “The diem ain’t gonna carpe itself”. As a parent notes, “When you enter Ms. Meyer’s class in middle school, you are never her student for just a semester. You are her student for life. You become part of an intergenerational community of students, parents and teachers inspired by Ms. Meyer to love and enjoy learning together”. Susan’s outreach activities foster positive attitudes to Roman culture. Students and alumni flock to her annual study abroad trips. They also take part in community events. As one proud parent notes, “Magistra has recruited an army of nerds who put on togas and march each year in the Chapel Hill/Carrboro Holiday Parade and turn the high school theater into the Underworld on Halloween”. Students submit modern Latin-related items for the classroom “ROMA VIVIT” board or take on the “Passive Voice Challenge,” attempting to use nothing but the passive for an entire school day. They create “Wonderful Verba” etymology videos (for those who miss middle school humor, the video on “incendiarism” is must see) or they read articles on her Classical Tumblr page, amoRoma. A parent explains that “Magistra is completely fluent in the language, social media, and pop culture of her students”, and a ninth grade alumna may best encapsulate the experience of Susan’s classes: “I loved how she taught in such detail that after her class even after I left the school I still think on a regular bases about word origin and how language works. Magistra's class was not only a Latin class but a life class.”
This hasn’t come easy. Susan inherited a weak program, which she has grown from a couple of classes of two and nine students respectively to five full classes at an average of twenty to twenty-five students. Her program flourishes with a diverse population. As a former teacher writes, “Ms. Meyer’s students reflect the diversity of North Carolina public schools. Her students are black, brown and white and from a wide range of economic strata. Her classroom is a haven where they learn and thrive with students across grades, schools and various other social divides. Susan has long sought to “be the teacher that I needed when I was a kid” and has succeeded brilliantly. In the words of a parent, “Magistra Meyer was born to teach middle school Latin.”