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Marva Collins – Teaching the ‘Unteachable’

Marva Collins was born in Alabama in the 1930s. Her father was African American and her mother was Native American. She was born at a time in a place where there was a great deal of discrimination.

Fortunately, for Marva, her father really believed in her and said to her from a very young age, “Marva, you can make something of your life. You can become a secretary.” Now the reason why he said secretary is because that was where the glass ceiling, or rather concrete ceiling exists for a person of her ethnic background, a person of her gender. Marva Collins worked hard, she was smart, she succeeded, she made it, and she became a secretary.

After few years of working as a secretary, doing well, she decided this was not for her and what her calling in life. Her real passion was in teaching.

She wanted to be a school teacher.

She went to night school. A few years later, she got her teaching certificate, got married and with her husband moved to Chicago. There she joined the public school system in inner city, Chicago.

The reality that she found, that she encountered there was a reality of much crime, much drugs and more than anything, hopelessness. The hope of the teachers was to keep the students in school for as long as possible. Why? So that they don’t join the street gangs at the age of 12; so that they are protected from the drugs and crime.

“How can we keep the students in school for as long as possible?” asked the teachers.

Marva Collins walks into this reality and says, “Things are going to be differrent.”

She teaches first graders to fourth graders. On the first day of class, she says to her students, “We are going to do a lot of believing in ourselves.” And she repeats this message over and over and over again, like a broken record throughout the semester, and year, and years.

“I believe in you. You can do well. You can succeed. Take responsibility for your life. Stop blaming. Stop blaming the government. Stop blaming your teachers. Stop blaming your parents. It is up to you to succeed.” And she continues with this message over and over and over again. Having really high expectations of her students, looking at what they’re good at, their strength and cultivating those.

Miracles begin to happen. These students, considered by many of the teachers to be ‘unteachable’. These ‘unteachable’ ones by the time that they are in fourth grade are reading Euripides, Emerson and Shakespeare. These ‘unteachable’ ones at the age of 10 are doing high school mathematics.

Now rumor begins to spread about Marva Collins, because how can she keep these students in class for so long, when all the other students are just trying to get out of school? She must be using force.

And Marva Collins has enough of these rumors, leave the public school system, opens up her own school in her own kitchen with 4 students and initially, two of them her own kids.

Gradually, more and more students join the Marva Collins school, Westside preparatory. All the students that intially joined the school are public school dropouts. Marva Collins is the last resort before the street.

And the miracles continue.

Gradually more and more students come in. She has to move out of her home. They wretchedly rent a small shack in Chicago place, freezing in winter, scorching hot in summer. And yet the students are driven by their passion.

And they continue. Miracles continue to happen to them.

Every one of Marva Collins’ students graduates from elementary school. Everyone goes to high school and graduates from high school. Every one of her students ends up in college and graduates from college. Yes, those ‘unteachable’ ones.

Marva Collins lives in a dire poverty for decades, somehow making ends meet. After all, most of her students can’t pay. But somehow, months to months, she makes it.

1979, it changes overnight. A producer, from the television CBS program ’60 Minutes’ finds out about Marva Collins and creates a 15 minutes segment on her. Overnight she become famous.

November 1980, new President elect Ronald Reagan calls up Marva Collins offers her to be his Secretary of Education. Guess her father was right. Marva Collins turns his offers down and says, “I love to teach too much. My place is in the classroom.” Eight years later almost to the day, new President elect George Bush Sr. calls Marva Collins once again, offering her to be his Secretary of Education. Once again, “I love to teach too much. My place is in the classroom.”

In 1995, a wealthy philanthropist donates tens of millions of dollars to Marva Collins. Now there are Marva Collins schools all over the States where thousands of students learn, where hundreds of teachers from all over the world come and see the miracle of Marva Collins.

Today there are Marva Collins graduates who are politicians, business people, lawyers, doctors, and more than anything, teachers. Because they know what their teacher has done for them.

Here’s an excerpt of how she do the “We are going to do a lot of believing in ourselves.”


Here is her book. For those who are interested in teaching and there’s one book you want to read, it’s this. For those who are interested in leadership and there’s one book you want to read, it’s this. For those who are interested in the future of becoming parents and there’s one book you want to read, it’s this. For the rest of you, if there’s one book you want to read, it’s this.

And The Marva Collins Story

~ Tal

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Outside and Inside the Box

“Think outside the box!”

In recent years, the catchphrase above had become a holy mantra for creative thinking, most likely to be used by management consultants and executive coaches in the business environment.

It means approaching problems in new innovative ways. It means conceptualizing problems differently. It means understanding your position in relation to any particular situation in a way you had never thought of before.

The world had shown an obvious success of the outer part of it. Apple, for example, decided not to pay for any advertising during a brief period after the first iPhone was introduced in January 2007 and when it went on sale later in the year. They used a ‘non-marketing marketing’ strategy to create some hype stories.

However, let’s look at the other part of the spectrum…

“Think inside the box!”

This catchphrase was not the popular ones.

It means approaching problems in known ways. It means conceptualizing a structure for multi problem-solving. It means understanding your position in relation to any particular situation in the way you had tackled them before. (Read something similar to this paragraph before?)

Apple’s story, again, they still use the same strategy for iPhone 5.

“Think inside and outside the box! If the situation requires you to think on the surface of the box, think on the surface of the box!”

It matters less for the approach that we use. What matters most is what we try to achieve and why we want to achieve it.

That makes better sense.

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