Fenwick Faculty Focus: Alan Howell, Foreign Language Dept. Chair


Alan Howell, the Chairman of the Foreign Language Department, is in his 34th year of teaching at Fenwick.

What is your education and background?

AH: I attended Kalamazoo College as an under-graduate and earned a major in Spanish language and literature and a minor in instrumental music. I spent my junior year in Spain living with a Spanish family and studying Spanish history, art and literature. I completed the requirements for a Michigan teaching license as part of my under-graduate program. After graduation, I returned to Spain and taught English to Spanish students for several months. I did my graduate degree at University of Michigan, where I was a teaching fellow and earned an MA degree in Hispanic language and literature.

What did you do prior to becoming a teacher at Fenwick?

AH: Before coming to Fenwick I taught junior high English and high school Spanish at Whiteford Agricultural School in Ottawa Lake, Michigan. When I moved to Chicago, I took a job at an elementary alternative school teaching all subjects. Following that experience, I spent three years at the Academy of Our Lady on the south side of Chicago. I began my years at Fenwick in the summer of 1983.

What are you currently reading for enjoyment?

AH: I am reading the following books for my personal enjoyment: Science and the Afterlife Experience, When Healing Becomes a Crime and Secret History of Extraterrestrials. 

What interests do you pursue outside of the classroom?

AH: My interests include gardening, watching classic films, reading and exercising.

To what teams and/or clubs did you belong as a student?

AH: As a student my main interest was band.  I played in the marching band, concert band and the jazz band. My instruments were the trumpet and baritone.  I was a member of the JETS club. I served as editor of the school newspaper one year. I wrote a weekly column about my high school’s events which appeared every Sunday in the Kalamazoo Gazette along with articles submitted from students of other area schools.

Which clubs/sports/activities do you run at Fenwick?

AH: At Fenwick I am the moderator of the Spanish Club.

What quality/characteristic marks a Fenwick student?

AH: I find the students at Fenwick to be exceptionally bright, motivated and personable. Most of them have a great sense of humor and I enjoy many good times and a lot of laughs in the classroom throughout the year. The students work hard and are goal-oriented. They are mature enough to appreciate it if they are learning lot in a class. I have received many very kind letters of appreciation from the students over the years.

When did you decide to become a teacher, and why did you choose this field?

AH: I had planned to be a teacher from an early age. My original idea was to be a music teacher but I became very interested in Spanish and changed my major during my sophomore year. I had admired some of my teachers and found their example to be inspiring. I was happier at school than at home as a young person, and that probably influenced my decision. I was never motivated by earning a lot of money. I was more concerned with doing something that I would find interesting and rewarding.

What personal strengths do you find especially helpful in your teaching?

AH: I think it helps that I have a sense of humor and don’t take myself too seriously. I try very hard to be fair in dealing with the students. I make every attempt to be organized and clear about my expectations and to give the students a reasonable yet challenging course. I know that I cannot ask them to be responsible and meet their goals if I do not do the same. I think that it is important to set the example.

What is your philosophy of education?

AH: I don’t know that I have a philosophy of education as such. I think education is extremely important and I take my duties and responsibilities seriously. I always try to do the best that I can with every group. I try to be sensitive to the needs of the students and am willing to adjust my expectations somewhat from year to year and class to class in order to tailor the instruction to the abilities and needs of each group. I try to be approachable and I make an attempt to avoid being dogmatic or arbitrary about my expectations.

What is the greatest success you have had in teaching?

AH: I always feel successful when a class works well with me and with each other throughout the year and performs well on the class assessments. It is especially rewarding when a student experiences difficulty at first and then catches on and excels. In recent years I have been pleased to see so many of my students achieving high scores on the AP exam.

What is the greatest challenge facing students today?

AH: Our students face many challenges these days, certainly more than I faced as a high school student.  I am amazed at how much some our students do at Fenwick. Many of them have athletic practices for hours every day. Some have jobs outside school. They appear in school plays and concerts. They participate in academic teams and contests. They are involved in charity work.  Somehow, they manage to keep up with their studies, as well. They apply to and are accepted at prestigious colleges and universities where the competition is surely even more challenging. We hear that the pressures associated with social media also contribute to their stress level, and yet they manage to excel in the classroom, in activities and in their personal lives.

How do you motivate your students to become active learners in your classroom?

AH: I do what I can to encourage students by trying to make the class enjoyable and worthwhile. I try not to waste the students’ time. I keep the atmosphere as positive as possible. The students in my class have to participate fully because my most reliable technique is to ask each row a question and to listen to an answer from each student. In this way, everyone talks and everyone gets the necessary speaking practice that is so important to master a foreign language.


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