- Sponsorship -

Teacher Challenges Students to Think, Take Risks


Mike Swift flipped off the lights in his eighth-grade language arts classroom. He momentarily went into the hall, cracked open the door and peered in, staring.

His students shrieked. Swift had created an image they are not likely to forget when they read the lines in Edgar Allen Poe’s short story “The Tell-Tale Heart:” “Every night about twelve o’clock I slowly opened his door. And when the door was opened wide enough I put my hand in, and then my head.”

Swift had just read the story aloud, moving chairs and pounding his podium as the tale unfolded, his voice sounding maniacal at times.

Moments later, he questioned the class about the pounding heart the narrator hears that drives him to confessing murder. Whose heart was he hearing?,Swift asked. He then had students run in place and do jumping jacks to get their hearts pounding. Could they hear their own hearts, or would that be crazy?

Swift is a popular guy at Mill Creek Middle School. When asked what teacher inspires them to work hard, students repeatedly mention “Mr. Swift.” They fist bump and high five him in the hallway.

What Swift does is challenge them to think, they say, to dissect meaning from what they read, whether it’s a creepy Poe story or Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address.

“One of the things I try to teach all students to do is, regardless of what Common Core (the national set of academic standards) wants us to do, the end goal is that we all need to think,” he said.

Swift reenacts “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Swift reenacts “The Tell-Tale Heart”

The Think Chair

Swift invites students to sit next to his desk in the Think Chair, a former library chair designed by his sister with the word “Think.” on it, and talk about whatever is on their mind.

“Every day, either at the beginning or the end of class, someone will sit in that chair and want to talk to me. It could just be about being on the basketball team or about personal issues at home. I mostly spend time listening and trying to be supportive.”

Eighth-grader McKenna Bent often sits in the chair and talks to Swift. She said she loves his class.

“Most of us can’t just learn from a teacher talking and writing stuff on a board. He actually gets everybody involved and he’s very active,” McKenna said. “He makes me think of things in a different way and to think more about things.”

Peyton Gilbert also likes to use the Think Chair. “It’s really nice to have someone to talk to.”

The class has an energy that helps her understand the literature, she said. “We learn while we are having fun. By putting things in a fun way, we remember it more.”

Swift, who has taught language arts and gym in Comstock Park Public Schools for 20 years, including for the past five as a middle-school language arts teacher, knows it’s important for students — for everyone — to express their feelings.

Know a rockstar teacher? Let us know who and why, and they could be featured in School News Network! Email SNN@KentISD.org

Cebrina Kader gets her heart pumping to see if she can hear it, as in “The Tell-Tale Heart”
Cebrina Kader gets her heart pumping to see if she can hear it, as in “The Tell-Tale Heart”

“I do believe it’s not just about work. Students are not just numbers and they are not just scores,” he said. “It’s very easy in this world, regardless of standardized test scores, to forget that. It’s the whole social media age. It’s very important for people to remember that they’re people. That they’re human.”

Literature offers a plethora of ways to remind people of their humanity. “I try to get them to understand that through the characters and situations that unfold in the story they might be able to see a connection to their own lives,” Swift said.

Principal Gus Harju said he sees Swift’s classroom as a place where deep learning becomes possible.

“He has the ability to transform students into the setting of what they’re reading or writing. Through combining questions of both lower and higher order thinking skills, he builds excitement for learning,” he said.

Swift is in tune with students’ needs and uses different approaches with each of them, Harju added. “I believe this individualized attention adds to the enjoyment of students being in his class.”

Subjects seem to merge in Swift’s class. Literature often serves as a lesson in history and can be applied to current events. In looking at documents like the Gettysburg Address, he asks students to think about its applications to today.

“If we look at our political candidates today, we have to be able to think about what they’re saying. Are they trying to inspire us to be a better nation, or do they have a different agenda? Students have to pay attention to that stuff around them, and think.”

He encourages students to take risks with their opinions: out loud, on paper or even in their own heads.

“Think,” he reiterates.

Mike Swift constantly challenges his students to think
Mike Swift constantly challenges his students to think

No Walls, No Bolts, No Locks

Swift also encourages young people to have big expectations, that the world is for them to explore and learn from. The class read the play, “The Diary of Anne Frank” and were astounded by the depth of Frank’s writing, who was just 16 when she died.

“Anne, through no fault of her own, was caught being unable to live her dreams and live as other kids live,” Swift said. “So, sometimes in our lives, we get caught in situations where the consequences that we have to live with aren’t of our making. How can we learn from Anne Frank to accept our present but possibly hope for something better?”

Again, the answer is: think. “There are no walls. There are no bolts. There are no locks that can imprison your mind,” he told the class, quoting a line from the play.

He also challenges students to think about invisible barriers that may hold them back.

“Anne Frank had the same amount of time in a day that you do,” he told them. “What do we do with our time? Do we fill our time with thinking, or with moving our finger on our screens? It’s very easy to get distracted from the uncomfortable thoughts that fill our silences.”

CONNECT

The Tell-Tale Heart

Anne Frank

- Sponsorship -
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio or email Erin.

LATEST ARTICLES

Fourth-grader’s pickle stand inspired by school marketplace

‘With my tiny fingers, I am good at stuffing them,’ said the young pickle peddler. ‘You can see how they are packed in, so you get more for the money’...

Looking for classroom lessons in the great outdoors

Sally Triant is exploring every GRPS campus in the city, looking for places to turn the outdoors into an educational opportunity...

Home schooling inquiries grow as parents ponder how to meet children’s needs

The pandemic has caused parents to seek options for schooling and socialization. For some, home schooling becomes an option, while others create new ways to help their children...

GRPS to continue virtual-only instruction for rest of semester

GRPS leaders decided to extend the district's 100 percent virtual learning model for the rest of the first semester after the Kent County Health Department announced rapidly rising COVID-19 positivity rates...

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Related Articles

Team builder, champion shaper wants athletes to be their best

She comes to the district after five years as women’s basketball coach at Ferris State University...

This student leader aspires to inspire

His advice: seize all opportunities, reach out to others...

Student athletes glad football is back, after trying other sports

Some student athletes briefly competed in other sports, such as tennis and cross country, after fall football was canceled. Now they’re happy to be back on the gridiron...
- Sponsorship -

HOW'S SCHOOL TODAY?

Engagement: The Most Important Measure of Student Success

Polls find that students’ engagement in their school work declines as they ascend the grades. Tests that don’t relate to their real-life experiences exacerbate the problem...

RADEMACHER & FRIENDS

Food ‘angels’ support hungry kids through pandemic

They work all across Kent County, guardian angels with peanut butter on their hands and crumbs on their shirtsleeves...
- Sponsorship -

MEDIA PARTNERS

Maranda Where You LiveWGVU

SUSTAINING SPONSORS