NHS Latin teacher wins national honor

  • Northampton High School Latin teacher Thomas Howell holds his award for excellence in teaching from the Society for Classical Studies. SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/16/2019 12:40:26 AM

NORTHAMPTON — Northampton High School Latin teacher Thomas J. Howell recently won national recognition for his work from the Society for Classical Studies, a major academic group focused on ancient Greek and Roman languages, literatures and civilization.

At the group’s annual meeting in early Janurary, Howell was given one of two awards for Excellence in Teaching at the Precollegiate Level. At most, two people win this award each year and take home a prize that includes $500 and an additional $200 for educational materials.

“I certainly wasn’t expecting it,” Howell said. “I still do think it was big honor.”

Teresa Ramsby, associate professor of classics at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and director of the master of arts in teaching Latin and classical humanities, was one of the people who nominated him.

Howell graduated from the UMass master’s program in 2000, and a few years later started hosting student teachers from the program to teach in his classroom.

Ramsby often observed Howell teaching at Belchertown High School, where Howell worked for 18 years until coming to NHS this academic year, and was always impressed. She noticed the classroom walls were covered in art such as oil paintings of mythological scenes.

“Just all kinds of indications that the students really liked the class and they were really engaged with it,” she recalled.

Howell would talk to his students in Latin, a technique that Ramsby said is not traditional but growing among high school Latin educators — a few teachers in Longmeadow, Amherst and Belchertown schools use the technique, she said. Unlike in language classes such as Spanish or French, Ramsby said, many Latin courses are conducted mostly in English.

The idea is that actually speaking Latin allows students to think in the language, instead of translating between English and Latin in their heads.

“When you use it and you hear it you actually learn things more deeply and quickly than you might under more traditional methods,” Howell explained.

Though Ramsby was wary of the practice, Howell changed her view on it. “I’m a believer now,” she said, “because I’ve watched him do this for years. His students respond to this.”

Allyson Spencer-Bunch, chairwoman of the Northampton High School world language department, wrote a letter to the awards committee in support of Howell.

“Since he began teaching in Northampton this fall,” Spencer-Bunch’s letter says, “every parent and student who visits me has told me the same thing: they are loving Latin.”

Greta Jochem can be reached at gjochem@gazettenet.com


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