Based on the true story of a defiant and determined, young teacher, The Marva Collins Story is as much a critique of the institutionalized racism existent in the Chicago public school system as it is the optimistic story of a new pedagogy. We follow Collins as she comes up against many barriers at the local public elementary school, including bureaucratic nightmares, lazy colleagues, racialized tracking, and the persistent ideology that “these kids from the ghetto cannot and just will not learn”. Critical Race Theory helps us to illuminate the structural violence imposed on the young students of color, attributing the cause of their failure to our society’s valorization of whiteness in institutions (Lynn 1999). However, Marva Collins seeks to disrupt and dismantle the perpetual marginalization of her race by starting her own school. Her pedagogy can be understood as an example of the African Womanist paradigm in education.
Annette Henry (2002) describes the African Womanist pedagogue as “demonstrat[ing] the capacity and need to act as ‘othermothers’ (p. 400) for their students while consistently providing them with positive reinforcement, promoting collective responsibility, and sharing, teaching them to be responsible for their own learning, using Afrocentric Womanist pedagogy as a basis for their curriculum, and encouraging the ‘academic, intellectual and cultural’ (p. 400) development of their students” (as cited in Lynn 1999, p. 609).
We join Collins here on the first day of her new school as she outlines the expectations for her students and consequently provides us with an overview of her pedagogy and ideology. She grounds her purpose in a context specifically pertinent to the African struggle when at 1:45 she says, “You see children, the system has people conned. Welfare is just another word for slavery”, tying her purpose to a project of Dubosian-like racial uplift. As she circles the classroom, she gives each student a physical gesture of maternal love by patting their backs or touching their cheeks. At 2:38, she gently holds a disruptive student’s face as she tells him “I love you. I love you. You’re a bright boy. You’re a handsome boy. But you do not have the right to disturb the other children’s right to learn”. This disciplinary tactic is particularly feminine and falls within the Womanist ideology due to the positive reinforcement and emphasis on collective responsibility. She never once raises her voice in anger, nor does she intimidate or threaten any of her students, which successfully diminishes one student’s clear oppositionality towards her. This film participates in a greater narrative of teaching as feminine work by promoting mothering and nurturing as key to community and identity building through academic success.
- What does it mean to promote behaviors tied to the performance of femininity as the work of a teacher?
- What lessons can we derive from Collins’ pedagogy that can be applicable or relevant to teachers today as schools become more and more divided by economic and racial inequalities?
Lynn, M. (1999). Toward a critical race pedagogy: A research note. Urban Education, 33(5), 606-626.
- The Marva Collins Story and Excerpts of Marva Collins’ Pedagogy (africanbloodsiblings.wordpress.com)