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Sunday, May 1, 1988

Book Review: Marva Collins Way by Marva Collins and Civia Tamarkin

Jeremy P. Tarcher, Inc., distributed by St. Martin’s Press, 175 Fifth Ave., New York 10010 • 1982 • 227 pp.

Marva Collins may not be a “super-teacher” as some have claimed. But she must have boundless energy. She also has a profound love of reading, a sincere interest in history, an infatuation with life, and a desire to share her enthusiasm with children. She also loves children and has a strong conviction that none is so dull that he or she cannot learn.

Mrs. Collins spent fourteen years, in inner-city public schools, learning how to teach. She worked hard to motivate her students. With kindness and praise she encouraged them to learn. She drilled them in the basics. In time her methods bore fruit; the children responded, and vied with one another to show her how much they had learned. During these years, she discovered her own love of teaching.

However, as time passed, Marva saw the attitude of teachers change. “The longer I taught in the public school system,” she writes, “the more I came to think that schools were concerned with everything but teaching. Teaching was the last priority, something you were supposed to do after you collected the milk money, put up the bulletin boards . . . straightened the shades and desks, filled out forms in triplicate, punched all the computer cards . . . .” As a result, apathy prevailed alike among teachers, administrators, and students.

Yet Marva persisted in pursuing her own proven method. But her very success with students created antagonism on the part of other teachers. When Marva could no longer take the harassment, she resigned. But teaching had become her life; it was in her blood.

The black “ghetto” of Chicago had been ravaged by the riots after Martin Luther King’s death in 1968. Yet it was there that Marva lived with her husband and three children. And it was there, in 1975, that Marva started her own school. When the doors opened, she had only four 7- to-9-year-olds—her own daughter plus three public school misfits.

Marva Collins likes to begin a class, even of the very young, by reading and discussing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Life is a straggle, she says. Every youngster is responsible for his or her own future. Each one will make mistakes, but a person who doesn’t make mistakes won’t make anything. She seeks to instill confidence in students by saying something nice to each of them every day. And she assures them again and again that they can learn.

Her first goal is to teach the children to read. Drills on phonics and syllabification are chanted over and over again. She reads aloud; she asks questions; she challenges the children to think, to speak up, to write, and to compare plots and characters in the stories they read. Through simplified versions of the classics she challenges youngsters to consider ethical and psychological problems, Reading leads, tangentially, to discussions of history, geography, and the profound moral teachings of the ages. After several months her students, most of them born and raised in the black “ghetto” of the inner city, are reading, often competing with one another to discuss Aristotle and Shakespeare. Quotations from the classics crop up in their papers and daily conversations.

The success of Marva’s method has been astounding. As a result, she has received nationwide attention in the press, radio, and TV. In five years, her enrollment grew from four to 200. Yet Marva says she performs no miracles. She just works hard! This book shows just how hard. It relates her struggles with the establishment, starting her own school, and coping with expansion. It explains in considerable detail just how she teaches, even listing at the back the books she uses. Anyone who is teaching, who is considering teaching, anyone who is homeschooling, or who simply loves children, will find this book fascinating.

  • Contributing editor Bettina Bien Greaves was a longtime FEE staff member, resident scholar, and trustee. She attended Ludwig von Mises’s New York University seminar for many years and is a translator, editor, and bibliographer of his works.