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The Genius of Marva Collins

Education pioneer Marva Collins died last week. She left behind tried and true strategies that support students’ brilliance and academic success.

Marva Collins, education pioneer and visionary, died on Wednesday, June 24, at age 78. Collins educated students many thought could not be educated or weren’t worth the effort, and she produced results. An author, educator, administrator, leader and advocate, Collins left behind tried and true strategies that support students’ brilliance and academic success.

Collins—raised Marva Knight in Monroeville, Alabama—attended the historically black Clark College (now Clark-Atlanta University) in Atlanta, Georgia. After graduating, she taught for two years in Alabama and 14 years in Chicago, Illinois. By the time 1975 rolled around, Collins had grown tired of her students spending more time playing at recess than learning. She quit her job as a teacher, cashed in her $5,000 pension and opened Westside Preparatory School. With a classical approach to education and a curriculum steeped in literature, Collins accomplished what many considered unthinkable. She successfully educated low-income African-American students in Chicago—many of whom were labeled “learning disabled.”

Collins was so successful that a film documenting her life and methods was released in 1981 starring award-winning actors Cicely Tyson, Morgan Freeman and Ed Asner. By 1991, in addition to the successful operation of her school, she was teaching 1,000 teachers a year on how to realize success. Five years later, in 1996, the city of Chicago gave Collins administrative control of five academically underperforming schools.

In 2008, Westside Preparatory School closed. But Collins’ methods, her practice, her legacy carries on through the lives of the countless students and educators she touched over the course of her 40-plus years in education. She instilled in them a love of learning and literature—often using the Socratic method to engage and teach students’ critical thinking skills.

Collins also leaves behind a bevy of work. Her titles include:

  • A Conversation with Marva Collins: A Different School
  • Grandma, What Is Learning?
  • The Marva Collins Method; A Manual for Educating and Motivating Your Child
  • Marva Collins' Way
  • Ordinary Children, Extraordinary Teachers
  • Redeeming Education
  • Values—Lighting the Candle of Excellence: A Practical Guide

Too often, school systems look to the newest curriculum or teaching methods to educate students who are on the losing end of the opportunity gap. African-American students living in low-income communities are disproportionately placed in special education classes or referred to the justice system due to teachers’ implicit biases. Collins educated students whom others could not and would not. And she did it well; many of her students succeeded.

All students deserve a quality education. African-American students must no longer serve as the test subjects for education remedies that don’t address the social inequalities that impinge upon academic success. At a time when the gap between African-American students and their peers is widening, we can look to best practices. We can look to Marva Collins’ example, rather than reinventing the wheel. We can tap the thinking and practice of education pioneers like Collins to educate those students who have been ignored, silenced and suspended from classrooms across the country for more than 60 years.

Christian is a teaching and learning specialist with Teaching Tolerance.

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