When I think of visionary educators, I think of Lucy Craft Laney and Marva Collins. Both women started their own schools in predominately African-American communities. Laney opened her school in 1883 in Augusta, Georgia while Collins founded Westside Preparatory School during the same year I was born – 1975. A solid elementary foundation was at the core of both their philosophies. In 2012, I had the opportunity to visit the famed Ron Clark Academy in Atlanta, GA. In many ways, Ron Clark Academy stands on the shoulders Marva Collins’ Westside Preparatory School National Training Institute which provided teachers with opportunities to visit and gain professional development as they saw the principles in action in a real setting with real students. Laney and Collins were able to leave remarkable legacies as educators without large corporate sponsorships, federal funding or dance routines. Marva Collins’ story in particular, is one of grit and sheer resolve to instill a desire to learn in students.
This summer I’ve immersed myself in reading the works of legendary teacher Marva Collins . Her school, once located in Chicago’s Southside, operated free of federal funds. This kept it free of many of restrictions and mandates that accompany those monies. From a purely administrative standpoint, this approach to instructional autonomy alone made Westside Preparatory School a brilliant approach to the education of young scholars. Most administrators, including myself, depend upon Title I funds and spend a considerable amount of time trying to remain in compliance and meet the needs of our students and families.
My academic and intellectual relationship with Marva Collins and her school is a circuitous one. I met her personally as a second year teacher in Macon, Georgia. In 2002, weary from a long day of teaching, we were summoned to an unusually warm office complex that the district used for professional development. A mix of excitement and fatigue loomed in the air of the large room that appeared to be designed for a considerably smaller crowd. For the next two hours, we were all swept away into a Shakespearean stream of high expectations, tight routines, and relentless questioning and prompting. Her comments were direct, her humor and wit were precise, and her charge to us was to be uncompromising because the lives of children were at stake. “I don’t wear a name tag” she said. “Never did! It’s my job to tell you who I am. That’s what we have to teach children. Speak up for yourself. Make your presence known.” Her concepts were so simple, yet they pushed squarely against the prevailing notions of the teaching act. Later that evening, I went online and read everything I could find about Marva Collins, including the 60 Minutes segment that featured her students reflecting on their experience at Westside Preparatory School.
Fifteen years after that meeting, I became the principal of a school founded on the concepts of Westside Preparatory School. The school is grounded in a culture of high expectations and supported by parents who agree to dedicate 16 hours of time to the school each year. Students memorize poetry, complete semester projects, morning meetings are conducted, and uniforms are worn. But those are tertiary requirements. What’s critical for converging with Marva Collins’ philosophy is establishing a pervasive culture of high academic expectations where students are challenged to step out of their comfort zones, speak in front of their peers, and write about their experiences.
I first found myself grappling with Marva Collins ideologically when I began reading “Ordinary Students, Extraordinary Teachers”. Getting past the title took a moment. I don’t see any “ordinary students” because I see how extraordinary so many of our students are given their talent, drive, and complex circumstances. Beyond the cover page, the book is a beautiful collection of her writings that inspire and challenge my thinking in the same ways that she did in Macon in 2002. While we disagree on the emphasis on whole group reading instruction and her suggestion that the small reading groups should be disbanded, we find common ground on her approach to phonics and teaching the many ways one sound is made so that students see all the spellings at once (i.e. ck, k, c) as opposed to introducing them separately.
In “Marva Collins’ Way”, she delves into her approach on teaching Macbeth and other Shakespearean writings to five-year olds. As I read it I’m inspired and interested in how to integrate the classics into the elementary curriculum in a more rigidly structured, high-stakes testing educational setting. It is at this point that our approaches diverge once more. My students, mostly African-American, African, and Hispanic, thirst for images and stories that connect to their experiences and their culture. Culturally responsive classrooms and schools lay a psychological foundation for students that starts with them becoming more culturally and personally aware of who they are. This prepares them to develop an appreciation for others’ cultures, languages, and perspectives.
This idea of grappling with an author is something that I learned studying with Dr. Daniel Chapman in Georgia Southern University’s Curriculum Studies program. Too often, we pull from the text without fully challenging the assertions of the author, examining the context, and demanding more justification for a perspective. As educators, we comb through articles and books looking for ideas we can implement in our schools. Reading and thinking critically about issues insulates us in a culture that often seeks simple solutions to complex problems. As we stumble upon gems, we inevitably must toss aside portions of the readings that either don’t align with what we believe or reflects time and context, funding-wise or testing-wise, vastly different from our reality.
Arguments with Mrs. Collins help me find my footing as a leader. I’m not willing to allow a few divergent perspectives to negate the immense wisdom found in her writings. That would be foolish. So as I argue and wrestle with her ideologically, I’m growing in my instructional prowess and reminded that while we may not agree on every issue, we are working for the same cause: educating children well.
André Benito Mountain is an educator and writer whose work has been featured in Education Week, Washington Principal Magazine, Curriculum in Context, and TEACH Magazine. He is the author of The Brilliance Beneath: The Power of Perspective in Urban Schools. His forthcoming book, The Mountain Principles, captures lessons in learning and leading for educators and leaders.