Thursday, July 14, 2005

Review: _Marva Collins' Way _

I am a classical homeschooler. The average person who asks, "How are you teaching your children at home?" has never heard of classical schooling and doesn't want a lecture. But if you say, "Like Marva Collins," their face lights up. For over 25 years Marva Collins has been the most famous teacher in America, yet not one American in a thousand can tell you what her method is called, how to find a local school that uses it, or how to teach that way at home. That disconnection sums up America's educational crisis in a nutshell.

Marva Collins was reared the only child of a wealthy African-American family in segregated Alabama. She learned early on that only three things really mattered: your knowledge, your courage and your willingness to work hard. After graduating from college with a degree in Business, she found the only jobs available at that time to college-educated African-American women were as teachers. She eventually became an elementary school teacher and honed her craft with 14 years of public school teaching.

Marva Collins didn't follow any curriculum. She asked veteran teachers what worked and tested their recommendations in her own classroom. She discarded what didn't work and kept what did work, and what worked for her students was phonics and a "Great Books" approach to learning delivered with large doses of positive reinforcement and lectures on self-reliance, a method that had been named by others "classical schooling."

By the early 1970s the veteran teachers who had trained Marva Collins were retired, and the new administration did not support her intensive learning style. In 1974 the principal abruptly took her own class away from her in the middle of the year. The parents were enraged and the principal was forced to back down, but Marva Collins knew it was time to strike out on her own.

At the urging of neighborhood mothers, Marva Collins began a private school, first in the basement of the local community college, then on the second floor of her house. She started out with a handful of students in what used to be called a one-room schoolhouse and is now called a "cottage school." After a shaky start, the school got good press and good results with their students. New students and donations poured in, and within a few years Marva Collins found herself the principal of a sizeable and highly regarded prep school.

_Marva Collins' Way_ is an inspiration to everyone, but the book has great practical value to classical teachers and homeschoolers. For all the talk about classical methodology there are very few descriptions of how classical schooling can be taught. Half this book contains detailed accounts of events in Marva Collins' classroom, making it by far the most descriptive work I've yet found about classical schooling in action.

Mrs. Collins is a devout Christian, but it might well be that nonChristian parents benefit the most from her method. While her speech to teachers in the appendix is one Biblical allusion piled on top of another, the transcripts of her daily lessons with students show that she uses a multicultural approach which treats the Bible as one Great Book among many. It has been argued that the moral principals at the heart of classical schooling can't be taught without a religious core, specifically without a Christian core. In her classrooms Marva Collins organizes her lessons and her moral principals around a core of Emersonian self-reliance, specifically Getting Out of the Ghetto, instead of a Christian theme. This method could be very helpful to secular parents who wish to use classical homeschooling but who are put off by the relentless Christian focus of much of the available material.

I can find only two criticisms with this book. While Mrs. Collins frequently castigates teachers for the failure of their students, not once in the whole book does she hold principals and the administrative staff responsible for not supporting the teachers. This glaring omission comes in spite of years of research showing that a school's success or failure is directly dependent on the quality of backup teachers receive from principals, a fact that she mentions directly in her preface and that comes through clearly in her autobiography. Decades worth of educational reform have stumbled into that blind spot and failed completely; it's past time to bring it out into the open.

The other criticism I can make about Marva Collins' way is the lack of an organized system for introducing new material. The transcripts make it clear that Mrs. Collins herself doesn't need one. Like James Burke, she is brilliant enough to make the "Connections" between just about anything and just about anything else. But how many other teachers can do likewise? Not many. When I mentioned I was reading this book, a former teacher who had done her student teaching at Marva Collins Prep School mentioned that while she saw children given lots of work she could discern no overall structure being given to them for them into which to organize the information. Perhaps one wasn't available at that time. I know the authors of the classical homeschooling manual _The Well-Trained Mind_ have put out a series of instructional materials that can be used by classical homeschoolers and classrooms; hopefully their work will begin to address that problem.

The one fact that comes through the strongest in this book is that Marva Collins is a saint. She has the stamina, the passion, the higher purpose, the total commitment and the mission of a saint determined to save the hearts and minds of her children from the corrosive effects of the ghetto. Without the vision, drive and charisma of a saint new social movements all too often fail to get off the ground. But I was also reminded of William James speaking of the difference between a saint and a philosopher. The philosopher is the person who analyzes the teaches of the saint and writes them into a creed that the ordinary person can follow. We desperately need a philosopher to analyze Mrs. Collins work and turn it into a system that any halfway competent teacher could follow, so that we can save the rest of the children caught in the maw of the "school system".


mike shelton said...

I happened to be searching the web for material on Marva Collins and came across your comments. They are insightful, objective, yet passionate. Thank you for making them. I learned quite a bit more about her after reading them. said...

Thank you!

1234567890 said...

Check out the VanDamme Academy website and google Lisa VanDamme (I am not affiliated). She visited the Marva Collins School and runs a private school. She provides the most detailed info I can find as to how to present/structure this type of education. She makes insightful criticisms of improperly structured "Classical Education".

Like you I am amazed how little analysis and discussion by anyone exists about Marva Collins methods. I still love the 60 Minutes specials on her (on You Tube, done in 1970.s then again in 1990's).