Marva was born on August 31, 1936, in Monroeville, Alabama. She was raised in Atmore, Alabama, in a time when Jim Crow laws ruled the South. Black people were not permitted to use the public library, and her schools had few books and no indoor plumbing. Nevertheless, her parents helped Marva and her younger sister develop a strong desire for learning, achievement, and independence. “We were expected to be excellent,” Marva once recalled. “We didn’t have a choice.” Because of this drive, Marva attended Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia.
When she was a young woman, Marva met a young draftsman named Clarence Collins. The couple married and had three children: Eric, Patrick and Cynthia.
Marva began her career as an educator when she taught for two years in her native Alabama. Then she moved to Chicago where she taught in public schools for fourteen years. In 1975, to help the disadvantaged students in her neighborhood, Marva founded Westside Preparatory School in the second floor of her home located in a Chicago ghetto known as Garfield Park. There she successfully taught a classical education to underprivileged inner-city students, some of whom had been inaccurately labeled learning disabled by public schools.
In her classes, Marva employed the Socratic method, modified for her elementary students. To do this, she selected material with abstract content to develop her students’ reasoning abilities, knowing that the material would have different meanings to different students. Her instructional methods were proven to encourage participation, reduce discipline issues, and develop self-discipline. The program avoided worksheets and busy work, and encouraged students to develop critical thinking skills. Marva ran her preparatory school for more than thirty years, until it was closed for lack of funding.
In addition to her classroom successes, Marva has written a number of manuals, books, and motivational tracts describing her history and methods, which were widely publicized in the 1981 biographical TV movie The Marva Collins Story starring Cicely Tyson and Morgan Freeman. Marva has also earned distinction as a motivational speaker.
For her professional achievements, Marva has earned a number of awards and accolades. In 1981, she received the Award for Greatest Public Service Benefiting the Disadvantaged. In 2004, she was honored with a National Humanities Medal from President George W. Bush. Additionally, she has received honorary doctorates from Amherst, Dartmouth, and Notre Dame.