Personalized Learning and Dwight's Quest Program: An Inside Look with Teacher Bentley Ferraina
Dwight always puts the student first. No two students are alike and our faculty go out of their way to craft a personalized educational journey based on individual strengths and talents. Personalized learning is the first of three pillars that serve as the foundation for a Dwight world-class education.
Dwight always puts the student first. No two students are alike and our faculty go out of their way to craft a personalized educational journey based on individual strengths and talents. Personalized learning is the first of three pillars that serve as the foundation for a Dwight world-class education.

Under the umbrella of personalized learning, Dwight's Quest Program provides students with the support they may need to excel academically. Through individualized attention, along with insights and supervision from dedicated teachers, students can reach their full potential. Upper School Quest Teacher Bentley Ferraina works one-on-one with his students, finding creative, innovative ways to keep them engaged and on track to succeed.

We sat down with Mr. Farraina to learn more about him and Quest, which he describes as "an incredible opportunity for students." Enumerating the benefits of the program, he explains how Quest contributes greatly to the overall personalized learning experience at Dwight.

Tell us about your background and what drew you to Dwight's Quest Program?

This is actually my first teaching job at a school. Before moving to New York, I lived in Chicago and worked at an education non-profit called 826 CHI, a creative writing and tutoring center that was an incredibly imaginative organization and a fixture in the community. I learned a lot there and discovered my love for education. In addition to after-school tutoring, I created and led writing activities on topics ranging from music and journalism to cryptozoology.

Teaching at Dwight has been a dramatically different experience, but the same elements that I enjoyed most while at the center drew me to Quest — working with students individually, finding creative ways to engage them, and becoming an active part of a new community. In addition, I get the opportunity to do the same kind of teaching and problem solving here that led me to education in the first place.

How would you describe Quest and the benefits it provides to students?

Quest is an incredible opportunity for students. The individual attention ensures that students can capitalize on their strengths, improve in any areas of weakness, and overcome any learning differences or setbacks. It all depends on the individual student's needs, which may include enrichment well beyond a student's grade level, fashioning a flexible study program, or working on developing certain skills. For example, we may work with a student on academic skills such as clear, concise writing; organizational skills like time and task management; or direct intervention on certain assignments, such as a daunting research paper. This kind of day-to-day support is obviously helpful, but the real value lies in the relationship Quest teachers develop with each student ― and with that student's teachers and family.

How does our School's commitment to personalized learning make a Dwight education unique?

Personalized learning is a hallmark of the Dwight experience and Quest is just one aspect of that. Elements like small class size ensure that students receive individual attention, but the most important element is the character of teachers themselves. The Dwight faculty is full of "favorite teachers" and it's been great becoming a part of this community. It's a very creative and energetic crew, who make the Dwight experience unique and bring out the best in students — even when students occasionally need that extra motivation!

Tell us about your work on the Innovation Team and leading the Quest team in rethinking technology to assist students.

One of my favorite things about working at Dwight is collaborating with my colleagues to solve problems, and the Innovation Team was created to do just that. The team is made up of some of the most creative, resourceful, and insightful teachers. Over the past couple of months, we've been focusing on introducing the school, faculty, and students to a resource called Evernote. It's a very versatile tool to help someone organize his/her work, research, ideas, etc. At the same time, it's a fairly complicated tool, so tutorials, demonstrations, and one-on-one assistance have been a big part of this effort. I don't think Evernote — or for that matter, any technology or technique — is a panacea, but it's been great to see students and teachers alike experiment with a new and unique tool. Even if someone bristles at Evernote, it may encourage them to look at other options or rethink their own approach. I hope the Innovation Team can continue to encourage that kind of incremental change across all levels of the School.

You also lead morning meetings, introducing students to helpful apps. Tell us about these.

My presentations have been about Evernote and other apps like Wunderlist — my favorite task-management app. Some of my Quest students have helped me with these presentations. They offer insights, discuss how they use a service, and highlight its strengths and weaknesses. Many students have a system that works (or that they think works), and then become entrenched when it comes to reassessing or changing that system. (This seems true of people in general, really.) There are also those who know they need a new approach, but don't know where to begin. The real value of these demonstrations has been in helping people to "find the signal in the noise." There are a lot of apps and services out there and I do a great deal of research and experimentation. The ones that I select are not just the most versatile, but also the most accessible. Should everyone start using these apps? Not necessarily, but it's important for students and teachers to be familiar with them and their benefits.

You are quite knowledgeable about technology! Is this your spark of genius? And how do you tap into that to inspire students?

I can definitely see how I come off as a serious "techie," but technology in and of itself is not what excites me. I like problem solving, and technology can provide solutions to an array of problems. I've always enjoyed finding solutions when things go wrong — when you make a wrong turn, or when your flight is delayed, for example — and scrambling to find a way to make things work. I get to do a lot of problem solving in Quest. High schoolers are bright and imaginative and brimming with potential, but also they sometimes need that extra guiding light to stay on task and to realize their fullest potential! Beyond helping students craft thesis statements or organize their tasks, my real goal is helping them become more aware of their process and the types of setbacks that may occur in their lives. This can help them anticipate problems and avoid excuse-making, such as "Google Drive ate my homework!" My students often come on Day 1 having spent a lot of their academic career in "crisis management." I try to teach them about "risk management" and show them how to solve problems independently, which will remain an important skill throughout their lives.

Is there anything else you would like to share about what makes Quest unique?

I think the happiest surprise for me was the real sense of community in the Quest department. The teachers and Josh Kigel, Director of Quest, have created a warm and welcoming environment full of creative people. The reality of Quest is exciting and inviting!

Quest is also a uniquely collaborative and innovative department. We interact with nearly every level and department of the school, and while we often specialize in certain content areas, I'm aware of the work going on in every single high school classroom. Because of this, students and teachers outside the department know that they can turn to Quest for a new perspective or original idea. I hope that Quest can continue to help the school grow and change, the way we do with our students.

What's your favorite thing about teaching at Dwight?

My favorite thing is the relationships I've developed with my students. As a Quest teacher, I'm currently working with ten students who I've come to know very well ― I know what they are most and least passionate about, and I can tailor lessons based on their needs and interests. I've taught them a lot, and they've also taught me a great deal. My students are also a reliable source of humor. The concerns and priorities of a teenager can really put things into perspective!
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