Most Americans first heard about Marva Collins in 1981 when she was potrayed by Cicely Tyson in a made for TV movie called The Marva Collins Story that also co-starred Morgan Freeman. She was offered the position of Secretary of Education by President Ronald Reagan but she preferred to stay a teacher. Marva is an outstanding Illinois educator who has won national praise for her results-oriented old-fashioned approach to teaching by the Socratic method. She believes that every child can learn and wants to learn in a respectful teaching environment. She believes that challenging children is a more direct path to true self-eteem and self confidence than any artificial or contrived dumbing down of lessons.
Marva was born in Monroeville, Alabama in 1936 and grew up in Artmore, Alabama in an era when segregation was the cultural norm. Her father Henry was a businessman and a strong and positive influence on her life. She learned to read from Bible School books and the directions on tin cans and from books her father borrowed in Mobile. He graduated from the all-black Eschambia County Training School in Artmore. According to the Marva Collins Seminars web site, black people in her town could not get a card at the public library and her grammar school had few books and no indoor plumbing. But her family inspired in her a strong desire to learn and achieve independence and self respect. She graduated from Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia in 1957 and taught school in Alabama for two years. In 1959, Marva moved to Chicago and married Clarence Collins. In 1960, she was hired as a substitute teacher in the Chicago School system even though she did not yet have a formal teaching certificate but quickly got one to teach full time. She taught in Chicago public schools for 14 years until 1974.
Marva Collins was not satisfied with the quality of education her students were getting in Chicago public schools. Her own two children were in private schools but she was not satisfied with their education either. In 1975, Marva Collins founded the The Westside Preparatory School in Garfield Park. Here is how the Marva Collins Seminars website describes what happened next:
"During the first year, Marva took in learning disabled, problem children and even one child who had been labeled by Chicago public school authorities as borderline retarded. At the end of the first year, every child scored at least five grades higher proving that the previous labels placed on these children were misguided. The CBS program, 60 Minutes, visited her school for the second time in 1996. That little girl who had been labeled as border line retarded, graduated in 1976 from college Summa Cum Laude. It was documented on the 60 Minutes programs in 1996. Marva’s graduates have entered some of the nation’s finest colleges and universities, such as Harvard, Yale, and Stanford, to mention just a few. And, they have become physicians, lawyers, engineers, educators, and entered other professions."
In 2004, Marva Collins received the National Humanities Medal from President Bush.
The Seminiar website continues: "Ms. Collins has received many accolades in recognition of her outstanding work with children. She was featured on Good Morning, America, 20/20, Fox News, and many more programs too numerous to list. A made-for-television movie titled, The Marva Collins Story starred Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman first aired in 1982, and is still presented on television."
"She has turned the responsibilities of running her school over to her daughter, Cynthia B. Collins, who was one of the first students in the Westside Preparatory School. Today, Marva Collins trains teachers in her educational program and methodology. Her curriculum is based on classical literature, and other subject material that contain ideas, lofty thoughts, and abstract concepts. The purpose is to teach children the values that hold societies together and that present to students thoughts that may be interpreted differently. Fourth graders in her school, for example, read Plato’s dialogue, The Republic. In it, Plato asks, “What is justice?” Justice has different meaning, according to one’s viewpoint or interpretations. The students are encouraged to express their own opinion. And, as any observer of Ms. Collins classes will attest, the children are eager to participate in classroom discussions, and their verbal skills are outstanding as are their reasoning abilities. Her students are taught to appreciate the nuances of language, how to analyze and challenge what they read, and to express their opinions. They learn to contrast their own ideas with the differing ones as expressed by the other students."
For the last forty-seven years, Marva Collins has benefitted thousands of Illinois students with her special zeal for elementary education and belongs in the Illinois Hall of Fame.