Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Books read in 2009: Marva Collins' Way

"In [a poet's] youth, he has not yet understood that poets like poetry, and novelists like novels; he himself likes only the role, the thought of himself in a hat. Rembrandt and Shakespeare, Tolstoy and Gauguin, possessed, I believe, powerful hearts, not powerful wills. They loved the range of materials they used....The caring suggested the tasks; the tasks suggested the schedules....They worked, respectfully, out of their love and knowledge, and they produced complex bodies of work that endure. Then, and only then, the world flapped at them some sort of hat, which, if they were still living, they ignored as well as they could, to keep at their tasks."--Annie Dillard, The Writing Life
If you've read anything about Marva Collins or watched the movie with Cicely Tyson, you will know why I found that quote appropriate. Marva Collins is a teacher who became something of a phenomenon, a guest on talk shows, the author of books, the recipient of awards. (She still has a speaking schedule and a website.) My impression is that she ignored the "famous hat" as much as she could when it interfered with the actual work she felt she was called to do: teaching. (From her own account, she did appreciate the cash that the recognition brought in; in the early days of her private school, it was badly needed to pay the bills.)

Things that occur to me:

1. I'm not the first person to point out that Marva Collins wrote her first book, Marva Collins' Way, around 1980, during the first wave of national recognition for her work teaching underprivileged and underappreciated children. Her students, from the brief mentions I've seen, went on to great success in college and careers. Yet, as others have said--nothing much changed in the educational system. Like the doctor who proved that handwashing could prevent childbed fever, her achievements seem to have been treated as exceptional, an anomaly, not repeatable. Obviously she is an exceptional woman; but she did train others to teach with her methods, boshing the idea that it was only her intelligence or personality that allowed her students to learn.

2. Some things definitely have changed since that first book was written. (My two library systems don't have ANY of Mrs. Collins' books, not one, not even this book; so I don't have her later writings to refer to, to see if she has commented on some of these points. I found my copy at the thrift shop last month. I know you can buy a newer edition on Amazon, with a new introduction.) Some classroom things I noticed: insisting that each child should be physically touched every day, and mentioning that it took a long time for one student to smile when she was tickled...these days that kind of makes us cringe, the idea of a teacher being allowed to tickle a student.

3. Marva Collins' teaching methods are not identical to Charlotte Mason's, although they did share many of the same goals and ideas (such as believing that all children should receive a rich diet of great books). One difference I noticed (from the descriptions of her classroom talk in this book) is that she often seemed to tell the children, or push them hard into telling her, what the story was about, what they should learn from it. But it sounds like the students often did throw in their own comments as well. Another difference was the very strong, constant emphasis on phonics.

4. I found her frequent sarcasm off-putting, although it seemed to get through to the students. Typical example: a boy noisily scraped his desk forwards on the floor, and she interrupted her work with another student to say something like, "I guess your mother sent you to school this morning so that you could learn how to push desks." I think I see where she was coming from; she was constantly pushing for these students to remember why they were there in school, that they were going to make something of themselves. But she sometimes seems to contradict herself in that area; she instructed her new teachers not to embarrass the students, but some of the things she said herself sound like they were meant to cause some embarrassment. Somewhat like where Charlotte Mason once said that there was a time and place for a child to be called "stupid" (in the Victorian adjective sense of the word); that sounds absolutely incorrect to our ears, but we can only assume that Miss Mason and Mrs. Collins knew what they were about.

5. I found it interesting, just going by this first book, that certain things were taught and taught very well, and other subjects (even those that were dear to Charlotte Mason) were ignored. There is no mention of foreign language classes, although there was a great deal of work on meanings of prefixes, Latin and Greek roots, things like that. Mrs. Collins mentions having the students draw about something they had read, but not about other formal art or music study, or even physical education. She knew where she wanted to focus, and seems to have done that successfully. (Her website sells phonics and math materials.)

6. There is a great deal for teachers to learn even from this first book. Homeschool parents too. One thing that stood out is the tremendous amount of energy and intensity that it took to teach in her style--there was no sitting behind the desk, no expecting without inspecting (thanks, Coffeemamma), no letting students get away with less than a real effort in anything. I think that's one thing that Mrs. Collins shares with Miss Mason: that the students--each individual student--come first, before the teacher's personal needs or emotions at the moment.

7. And of course, one of the most wonderful discoveries that Mrs. Collins made, that Miss Mason's Welsh teacher acquaintance made, that Miss Mason herself described repeatedly: that children, even inner-city minority children who are slipping through the school cracks, can respond to great literature, given to them in the right way and by a teacher who believes that they can learn and be successful.

Verdict: well worth reading.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing this review! I think I read Marva Collin's Way when I was in high school, on the heels of a Torey Hayden streak, and picking my way through my mother's shelf of books on education and teaching.

I have not, however, reread this book since becoming a parent. It sounds like it would be well worth a reread.

Mama Squirrel said...

I read Torey Hayden's books too, a long time ago--and Mary McCracken's.

Anonymous said...

Oh, yes, Mary McCracken was on the same shelf. :)