Chair of English, Michael Wiesenfeld, Expounds on Personalized Learning in English Class
Chair of English, Michael Wiesenfeld, Expounds on Personalized Learning in English Class

For Michael Wiesenfeld, nothing captivates like a great story — whether written by Shakespeare, H.G. Wells, or brought to life before one's eyes dramatically in a court of law. He brings a passion for reading, writing, and crafting persuasive arguments into the classroom to inspire IB students to use their own voice. As the academic year comes to a close, we sat down with the Chair of Dwight's English Department to learn more about his path to teaching at a New York high school and his hopes for graduating seniors.

You graduated from Johns Hopkins as a Writing Seminars major. What drew you to that program?

Johns Hopkins is one of the few national universities with a program focusing on development of your own writing, both creative and professional. I honed my skills in classes on fiction, non-fiction, playwriting, screenwriting, literary analysis, biography, news reporting, research, long-form journalism, science journalism, legal writing, and technical writing. I knew a broad range of writing skills would allow me to chase any number of careers.

Who are your favorite authors?

Impossible to answer, but I'll try. Let's start with a favorite genre — classic science fiction. My all-stars: Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Philip K. Dick, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, and Stanislaw Lem. As for classic adventure, you can't beat Alexandre Dumas or Robert Louis Stevenson. In the twentieth century, I relish Herman Wouk. Neil Gaiman is for all hours; and I savor David Mamet dramas and Jorge Luis Borges short stories. And while, yes, I'm a die-hard fan of all things Shakespeare, my favorite play of all time — from the proud romantic in me — is Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac.

You attended law school and became a prosecutor. Describe your experience working for the City.

Mountains of paperwork, late hours, constant flows of good and bad people, frenzied hallway negotiations, the occasional courtroom outburst. But the best bits were simply standing in front of a judge and jury as I examined witnesses and made arguments. Trials are really where justice happens. I spent time in the Organized Crime Bureau, running long-term wiretap-based investigations, and working those cases was a thrill, but when I handled violent felony trials — my best story: a ripped-from-the-headlines attempted-murder case — that's when I felt most satisfied. Giving victims a chance to tell their stories, a chance to point to the person who caused them such fear or injury, that's an incomparable feeling. You are, at that moment, altering lives — both the victim's and the perpetrator's. The victim, hopefully, gets some closure, some sense that righteousness prevailed; and the perpetrator, hopefully, gets the punishment that's deserved. And it all happens because I put some of my best skills to good use: interviewing and prepping witnesses; writing direct- and cross-examinations; crafting opening statements, closing arguments and evidentiary motions; and speaking publicly — sometimes extemporaneously, but always persistently, passionately, and, ultimately, persuasively.

Why and how did you transition from law to teaching?

Actually, I first transitioned from teaching to law. In high school and college, I led mock trial programs; in college, I achieved consistent success on a national level. But my first important jobs were all teaching: in high school as a swim instructor; in college as a creative writing instructor at a university summer camp; and as an English teacher at local private schools. My desire to be a prosecutor drove me to law school and then the District Attorney's Office, but I never stopped loving literature — or teaching.

I taught SAT and LSAT test-prep, I coached conflict resolution at a public school, and I taught criminal law at a university summer program. Eventually, after years of trial work, I had experienced almost all that I wanted at the DA's Office, so I revisited teaching English. At first, my teaching was only supposed to be a one-year sabbatical, but English can really get its hooks into you. So, though I continued part-time as a prosecutor, I mostly threw myself back into class books and essays and lessons. After two other private schools, I came to Dwight, and since then I've had some of the best years of my professional life.

What's your educational philosophy?

42. Really. For those who don't know 1980s British author Douglas Adams, 42 is the answer to life, the universe, and everything. But the real point of that vague, tantalizing answer is this: knowing the answer doesn't matter nearly as much as knowing the right question. My educational philosophy: 1) what don't we know? and 2) what do we need to ask to know it? So much gets lost when we only target the response. What about knowing how to elicit a response? How to provoke, how to inquire, how to learn not only that 42 is the answer but why it's the answer. If we can start there, even a little bit, even for a few minutes in each class every day, then we're on our way to ... life, the universe, and everything.

What do you enjoy most about teaching at Dwight?

The students. They make or break a school. Faculty, administration, staff, resources — they're all important, and we're lucky that at Dwight they're all top-notch. But if you don't have great students — who consistently challenge you, genuinely care about learning, energetically contribute worldly experiences and viewpoints — if you don't have them, then you might be a teacher, but you're not really teaching. It's like if you had to dive into the East River, sure, now you're a swimmer, but you wouldn't really call what you're doing swimming. It's more just desperately trying to get to shore.

But I really enjoy the waters at Dwight. The students like being here. They like English, even if they don't like every book; and they like writing, even if it's sometimes difficult; and they like talking, even if it's sometimes graded. They come from all over the world, represent every opinion on every issue, understand that improvement requires effort, and mostly understand that improvement is what it's all about. That mentality is a testament not only to the students that come to Dwight but also to what Dwight does for them once they're here. It's a good match, and I so appreciate being part of it every day.

How do you bring personalized learning to life in the classroom?

It's easy to personalize English learning. When done well, all English — literature, writing, even vocabulary and grammar — is personalized. We read books and interpret them based on our experiences and views; we write what's in our heads — be it formal analyses or informal reflections — and we do it using a voice that's our own, with words, punctuation, rhythm, and tone that are uniquely personal. I don't bring personalized learning into the classroom. It's already there. That's where it lives. If I've done my job, if I've built a class where students feel motivated, empowered to contribute, to exchange ideas and challenges, to write their opinions and interpretations, then personalized learning is happening, all of its own accord, like a gyroscope whirling toward equilibrium. All I did was set it up, then sit back and watch it spin. Genuine personalized learning — it's a sight to behold.

As a 12th Grade English teacher, what lessons do you hope graduates take with them?

It'd be easy to think that instilling or perpetuating a love of reading is the most important task I can accomplish with students going off into the world. But that love is, ultimately, based on personality. For some people, reading will forever be in their lives, and for some it won't. However, a skill is different. It doesn't involve who you are; it involves what you can do. And for the real actions behind English: analysis and communication — with practice, guidance, everyone can build those skills.

I hope my students remember how their ability to break down details, to organize thoughts, to craft interpretations and arguments, and to express them with precision and persuasion, how that ability can strengthen you in every human interaction, both professional and personal, and how it can be the light in a world that sometimes wallows in darkness, confusion, and conflict. If they take that lesson with them, then the world will be a little better off than it was before.

What is your spark of genius?

My one sure-fire, no-holds-barred, perpetual-motion engine of passion and energy and joy? When I was young, it was Legos and any book I could grab. When I was a bit older, law rose to that same level for me. When I was older than that, my wife slipped right above them both. And now, alongside my wife, my two sons top the pyramid. I'm lucky: I've got many sparks — a nice little inferno.

What is a little-known fact about you?

I've played piano for decades, and I've composed hours worth of music, which only a handful of people have ever heard. For me, composing is different from writing. It's more raw, elemental, like I'm tapping into something that's not quite connected to me but that exists in the ether, and I just swipe ingloriously at it, capturing it only every so often. But that's good enough for me. Like my students know, it's all about perspective.

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