10/17/08 — Renowned educator speaks to parents, teachers

View Archive

Renowned educator speaks to parents, teachers

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 17, 2008 1:46 PM

Marva Collins

Want to help children learn and dream?

Demand more, be a role model and don't accept the word "can't," educator Marva Collins told a group of parents, teachers and others Thursday at Wayne County Public Schools' districtwide Title 1 conference.

Ms. Collins grew up in Alabama during the "worst times of racism" but somehow emerged with the confidence to believe she could do anything she wanted.

After teaching for two years in her home state, she moved to Chicago, where she taught in the public schools for 14 years.

Not satisfied with some things she saw, she started her own school, Westside Prep, in 1975, taking in learning disabled students.

Tenacity paid off. Her success rate brought her attention. She was recognized on "60 Minutes" and in 2004 won the National Humanities Medal from President Bush.

But the renowned educator shies away from the accolades, focusing more on the two questions she asks herself each day -- "Why am I on this earth and what am I here to do?"

"I realize that what I do is a gift given me that I seem to be able to motivate children that everyone seems to write off," she said.

Ms. Collins said she "never followed any of the rules," yet her students always managed to score higher than their counterparts.

She views her life's work as encouraging students to excel.

"I am one of those individuals that doesn't believe in 'can't,'" she said. "I remove the 't' and have, 'I can.'"

But just getting the job done is not enough. Being top students in their communities is not enough of a goal, she adds. Students need to be universal citizens.

"Can they compete with students anywhere? That's my goal."

Ms. Collins has not focused on educating inner city children, black children or poor children. Rather, she said, she educates scholars who can compete anywhere in the world.

"I'm not sure we have learning disabilities as much as victims of some teaching inability," she said. "Give me those low achievers, that anyone says can't learn. Leave me with those students for six months, and I will give them back winners."

More than 160 parents and educators attended the half-day conference that featured 12 mini-session workshops. This is the 12th year of the event.

As keynote speaker, Ms. Collins' message targeted those working with children, while encouraging parents to spend time talking to their child each day and instilling better messages.

"Children are what they learn. Children today think it's about stuff and things. I'm not impressed," she said. "It's about, what do I do here? Ask your children, 'What did you do to make you a better person and the world a better place?'"

Youths today need models they can emulate, someone to nurture and to challenge them to be their best.

"If you teach greatness, they become great. If you teach mediocrity, that's exactly what they become," she said.

She challenged the audience to ask themselves three questions each day -- Do I matter, why am I here and what am I here to do?

"I think all parents should take the time to ask those same philosophical questions," she said. "I think what saddens me is that we still have this idea that we can purchase self-esteem, that we can go to the store and say, 'Give me $1,000 worth of I love you,' when we can instead really like ourselves. ... I pursue excellence for me. I live my life, as if every day that I am here is my last moment on earth. Is that what I would like my life to end doing?"

Ms. Collins has spent the bulk of her career finding solutions for students that seemed hopeless.

Confident that has been her purpose, she now works to pass along the message to others.

"Each of you that's here today can make this city historic, can make this city wonderful," she told her audience. "I think sometimes we forget that we have the things that the greatest have had -- two hands, two feet, two eyes -- and it's whether we use them or not."