Noted educator Marva Collins visited Prince William on Thursday to give a seminar at Pennington School, which has adopted many of her successful teaching techniques.
Calling the teachers in attendance "my bright ones," just as she does with her students, Collins explained why she scorns workbooks, preferring to teach directly from the classics and engage in back-and-forth exchanges with students.
"You can give a cat a pencil and they'll get some of the answers right. It's really guessing. It's not analytical thinking," she said.
Collins took teachers through a phonics lesson in which she incorporated lofty vocabulary words, and said she never punishes her students by yelling.
"As teachers, are you going to allow your students to bring you to their level, or are you going to take them to a higher level?" she asked. Many of her pronouncements were met with laughter, applause and heads nodding in agreement.
In addition to Pennington teachers, educators from Vaughn Elementary, Rippon Middle and the county's new "traditional" school, Porter, attended the day-long seminar. Representatives from schools in Lynchburg also were there; the 9,000-student district is considering opening a school similar to Pennington.
Collins came to prominence in 1975 when she founded Westside Preparatory, a Chicago school that produced high achievers from its student body of primarily poor, black and at-risk children. Her success led to widespread attention from educators across the country, including Prince William, which sponsored her visit last week.
County school officials visited her academy about five years ago, then brought some of the ideas back to create Pennington four years ago. Students there wear uniforms, adhere to behavioral contracts and follow a rigorous course of study. Both students and parents are expected to perform community service. Pennington students have earned among the highest scores on standardized tests in the county, and there was so much interest in Porter, its eastern counterpart, that a lottery had to be held to pick students in most grades.
Such success is not a surprise to the confident Collins, who said she believes schools all over the country could be improved by adopting her techniques. "I can take any school, the most troubled school, and be there for a month and give you back a different school," she said during a lunch break Thursday.
For the teachers in attendance, the seminar served as a learning tool, as well as validation.
"What I really like is the very positive approach that she takes," said Frances Michaels, librarian at Porter School. "And being a librarian, I like what she has to say about reading and literature."
Ryane Whitehead, a third-grade teacher at Pennington, appreciated seeing a demonstration of Collins's phonics lessons. In the school system where she used to teach, phonics was not stressed as strongly. "It'll be interesting to try some of those things in the classroom."
Joyce Boyd, principal of Pennington, said Collins's visit served as motivation. "Plus, we have a lot of new staff, so this helps them get on board with the vision," she said.