The Reading Quilt: Remembering Marva Collins
Education is paramount: This is a popular maxim and a powerful one in the African American community. When we flip through the pages of African American history, we meet a host of academic activists who opened the doors for African American children to learn and discover our vast world. Notable present-day scholars like Cornel West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Henry Louis Gates Jr. walk freely through academic halls paved by scholars like the historians Cheikh Anta Diop and John Henrik Clarke, and the educator and activist Angela Davis.
“The Reading Quilt” provides a short synopsis of a book that teachers may use to spark conversations about culture and race. This month “The Reading Quilt” shines a spotlight on the late Marva Collins, who worked passionately to help educate African American children who were dismissed as learning disabled, bad, or unlovable. Often using her own money, Collins devoted her life to providing quality education to those most in need. Her book Marva Collins’ Way was first published in 1982.
Born Aug. 31, 1936, in Monroeville, Alabama, Collins lived most of her 78 years as an advocate for children. Considered a pioneer in education, Collins is best known for opening Westside Preparatory School in the impoverished Garfield Park neighborhood of Chicago in 1975. Her work at Westside helped her develop a style of teaching that became known as the Collins Method, and she hoped to offer an alternative there to the substandard schools in the area.
At this school, which she first opened in her home on a meager budget, she could teach young people to love learning. The curriculum included philosophers like Homer and Plato, as well as Chaucer, who wrote The Canterbury Tales and is considered “the Father of English literature.” Collins’ work with kids who were considered “unteachable” brought lots of media attention. Cicely Tyson portrayed Collins in a 1982 television movie, and Morgan Freeman played her husband, Clarence, who was a source of inspiration. The movie immortalized Westside Preparatory School, which Collins ran in a building on Chicago’s South Side for more than 30 years, until it closed in 2008.
Collins, often invited to speak at public events, was celebrated for her work in the education system. She received prestigious awards and honorary doctorates from institutions such as Amherst College, Dartmouth College, and Notre Dame University. President George W. Bush awarded her the National Humanities Medal in 2004. She also wrote books about her experience as an educator. Collins died June 24, 2015.
An interview with Collins
As a veteran educator and journalist, I was thrilled to meet and interview Marva Collins in 2009 at Plate Restaurant (now defunct) in Ardmore, Pa. By the time I met my academic idol, I had been teaching nearly two decades, had read her book a dozen times, and had memorized Cicely Tyson’s lines in the TV movie. But nothing could prepare me for the moment when Collins stepped into Plate, with her entourage, including members of Concerned Black Parents, at her side. She was statuesque in her flowing pale-colored pants suit, short-cropped hair, and distinctive jewelry. Once she passed the threshold, the clinking of wine glasses and din of voices became muffled, and the entire restaurant seemed to pause. For a second, I thought I had made a terrible mistake in inviting this queen to Plate. I thought that a lady of her refinement and grace might find it brash. Instead, Collins, in her voice reminiscent of a griot, absorbed the festive vibe and ordered a child’s mac and cheese because she didn’t want to break my budget. So it was over mac and cheese and plates of hors d’oeuvres that Collins gave us “pupils” wisdom that I treasure to this day.
Q: What are your thoughts on the high percentage of African Americans placed in special education?
A: Placing kids with so many specialists makes kids think they are sick … like there must be something wrong with us. In reality, kids often need special services to compensate for teachers’ ineptness. We beat kids down academically, which makes them think they are stupid.
Q: Often, minority students are limited by financial barriers. How can we as teachers introduce these students to other worlds?
A: I create imaginary passports for my students to take them around the world. Teachers often concentrate on the wrong things. Let’s focus on what we can do. Let’s agree that we are going to travel and worry later about how to get there. Sometimes we are too busy pointing out deficiencies and lack. We must remember that everything is in a book.
Q: In many school districts, the demographics of the teaching faculty does not match the demographics of the student body, which often results in cultural bias. What are you thoughts on this situation?
A: You can look with disdain at a child, and they can tell when you are putting them down. In any case, kids need strong leaders. Not fakers. Sometimes the adults teach the kids one thing, but do another. When you talk about excellence, the teacher has to be excellent, too.
Q: There is so much wrong in public education, which makes the teaching profession hard. Many teachers get frustrated and quit. What are your thoughts on this situation?
A: Before a teacher leaves her school, she should ask herself: “What have I done that is excellent where I am?” If you can’t answer that, how can I trust where you say you are going? Every day I do something that will make me excellent and expand my mind. What did you do this year that would win the Teacher Academy Award? You can’t cheat others without cheating yourself. When you don’t explore excellence, you can’t be excellent.
Q: How can we help these at-risk students?
A: Every teacher talks about saving children. The teachers really need to save themselves first. The student reflects the teacher. If the teacher has personal problems, shortcomings, and limitations, the students will reflect those deficiencies. First, the teacher must bond with her student. Next, she must discuss with the student what mutual respect looks like. Students need to be treated like customers … with respect. For example, the teacher needs to know the mind of a teenager. But the teacher does not need to argue with the student. In the classroom, I know that I am the master of the game. No kid can outwit me.
Q: I know you believe at-risk schools can be turned around. But the obstacles that public educators face can be overwhelming.
A: The enemy wants to you to think the problem is too big. The cup is half empty if you are going to drink from it. But it is half full if you are going to fill it up. Be optimistic. Think outside of the box. Be bold, innovative. What really matters is the children.
Rachel Slaughter earned her doctoral degree in Cognitive Studies in Reading at Widener University. Her dissertation explores multicultural literature in private schools through the lens of Critical Pedagogy. The books she has written include one for fathers and sons that provides fun activities to promote reading: “Daddy, REAd to Me (DREAM): The Virtual Trophy Abecedarium and Journal for Fathers and Sons.” To contact her, email firstname.lastname@example.org. For other multicultural literary suggestions, follow her on Google Plus or go to literacyuniversity.org.