a tribute by Dr. Tiffany A. Flowers*
Marva Collins became a household name is the 1970s when she left the Chicago Public School system to start West Side Preparatory School on the West Side of Chicago. Ms. Collins initially worked with a small group of children in a one-room school house setting. Her approach included using classical and African American literature, and focusing on vocabulary development, oratory skills, and reading. Although Ms. Collins was known for her advocacy of using phonics to teach African American students to read, those who read her work and used her teaching materials understand that her approach included much more.
Collins’ success with students earned her an offer to become Secretary of Education under the Reagan administration. However, she declined the invitation in order to continue her grassroots work. She opted instead to expand her school. She hired teachers to work with students from the early to the intermediate grades. Collins went on to provide consulting and teacher training for preservice and practicing teachers in the area of literacy and mathematics through observations at her preparatory school for more than 30 years, which was later led by her daughter. To her credit, Collins was so successful she penned her memoir, The Marva Collins Way and later signed a deal for the television film about her life. In the film, Cicely Tyson played the role of Marva Collins.
Collins’ life work inspired thousands of teachers across the United States. It was especially salient for African American teachers that wanted to teach African American students who most thought were uneducable. In the realm of higher education, many teacher educators still use her work for classes in urban education, African American studies, and literacy.
Collins’ work was critical to not only the success of students on the West Side of Chicago, but to every educator in K-12 and higher education who she inspired with her legacy. Educators will always remember her enduring legacy of teaching Black students reading stamina, cultivating interest in learning, selecting appropriate materials, teaching students to work hard, and inspiring many of the nation’s teachers working with impoverished students to encourage them to go to college.
Marva Collins was born in Monroeville, Alabama, and passed away late last month in Beaufort County, South Carolina. She was 78 years old. Marva Collins was a graduate of Clark Atlanta University and worked as an educator, consultant, and community organizer for over 40 years. Her legacy and what it meant for African American children is one that should not be forgotten.
*Tiffany A. Flowers is an assistant professor of education at Georgia Perimeter College in Clarkston, Georgia. She is an Indiana Minority Faculty Fellow, Frederick Douglas Teaching Fellow, and an NCTE Early Career Award Leadership Award Recipient. Her research interests include African American literacy development, literature, diversity issues in education, and emergent literacy.