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Spotlight | Christel Johnson, Modern and Classical Languages, Department Chair


“Amici, Oi Φιλοι,” Two very distinct ways to say Friends, but not unfamiliar to any alum who has been taught by Phil Schwartz or most recently Christel Johnson. This year marks Christel’s 20th year at Friends, where she has worked as teacher in the World Languages Department and is the current department chair. She shared, “At Friends pushback is encouraged, which allows teachers to expand the curriculum.”

After completing her PHD program and while working on her dissertation, Christel was looking for an adventure. She decided to take a chance on New York City, and after searching through different independent school job boards, she chose Friends Seminary. “Upon walking into Friends, I had this smell, this memory of my old elementary school. It was an emotional connection from that first day I came

in for my interview.”


Christel was initially hired to teach Greek and Latin. “I was very disappointed when Greek was removed from my teaching load, given that was what I studied in college and for my PHD.” As the number of students with an interest in the ancient language have increased, Friends now offers Greek 1 and 2. It is an elective course for students who have a love of languages.


Who has inspired Christel’s teaching? “Phil Schwartz was a great mentor for me when I came to Friends, and at that time Pam Wood was our Division Head. They both helped introduce me to Quaker values which I have integrated into my teaching. In world languages we focus on community and embracing different cultures, relating to Quaker values of equality and creating a sense of belonging. At Friends we’ve had the opportunity to expand the curriculum to bring awareness to other cultures under the old Roman Empire. It is refreshing to work in a community where diversity of offerings is welcomed.”


“For the last 20 years, each day walking into Friends has felt like a constant homecoming, almost like a returning-to-self that I know what I was meant to be, which is a teacher.” Today, Christel continues to teach Latin and Greek and is the Chair of the World Languages Department. “I have the immense privilege to work with some of the most dedicated and thoughtful teachers at all grade levels. Friends has invested in the study of world languages, allowing students to learn about different cultures as well,” she reveals. “This is something that makes the School stand out not only in New York, but nationally as well. We’re the only department that allows students to connect with world languages that date back thousands of years as well as those that reside within the five boroughs. Outside of math, we’re the only department that offers students this opportunity. Mathematics, like world languages, is a language; all languages trace their very beginnings to the earliest instances of inquiry and scholarship. Both disciplines provide students an untethered connection to the past which they can use to tap into deeper community and belonging.”


After two decades at Friends, Christel recalls key moments in her tenure. “When we first started the Latin Colloquium, the average class size was about 18 students in the Upper School. Beginning around 2010, we filled an entire townhouse, including all classrooms, and students filmed the panels. The papers were presented simultaneously,” explains Christel. She cites the Latin Colloquium, introduced in 2007, as an important way to elevate students’ scholarly work. She adds, “It is modeled on the colloquiums that I participated in as a graduate and undergraduate student. Scholars-in-training share and engage in conversation about their work. It’s a high-pressure environment that prepares them for defensive scholarship.” Students who present exceptional work are encouraged to try to have their papers published, another important learning opportunity. “Lily Weissberg ’17 was the first student to have her work published,” says Christel with pride.


“Another fond memory was taking a huge group from the Class of 2009 to Rome,” she continues. I took 17 students. In order to offset the cost of the trip, students organized a game night and brought in a karaoke machine. It was open to all students in Grades 7-12. “I remember Travis Bogosian ’09, Zaid Aftisse ’09 and Gabriella Ansah ’09 drove to Costco, and the parents donated snacks. The students raised a lot of money that helped reduce the cost of the trip. This class in particular stands out due to their desire to be involved and support the trip. The Class of 2009 was the first class I taught from middle school through Grade 12.”


To celebrate students finishing their AP Classes, there would be a dance party in the townhouse. Nola Barachman ’08, Cheryl Walker ’08 and Rachel Colberg-Parseghian ’07 are some former students who Christel remembers enjoying the fun. With the Class of 2010, Dean Cooney ’10, Cyrus Kuschner ’10 did a skit based on the HBO series Rome, which was also memorable.


Christel reports that Andrew Harsh ’19 holds the record for the most competitions won as a classics student at Friends. In the same year, Walter Goldberg ’19 became obsessed with the term “Chiamus,” which means Abba. Everytime the students would come across this term they would laugh as a result. In skits with Dakota Ticheli ’19, Bianca Howell ’19, Sophie Luard ’19 and Amari Taylor ’19, the students created elaborate costumes, painted backdrops, used puppets, and let themselves play while learning. The community of their classroom was an infectious balance of rigor and unbridled exploration,” recalls Christel.


After graduating from Friends, Harry Sands ’22 and Damian Walker ’10 went on to study Japanese which requires learning hundreds of characters. Both attribute their study of Latin to helping them become more proficient in speaking and writing in Japanese.


“I try to balance academic rigor with fun,” explains Christel. “I have high expectations, but I strive to strike a balance. In the future, I want us to maintain what we’ve built, offering five languages is an ideal number and provides a great foundation for our students. This year we reinstituted the National Latin Exam.”


Christel will lead the 16th Latin Colloquium on Friday, May 19, 2023. All alumni are encouraged to attend.


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