Four-year-olds wrote such sentences as ''Aesop wrote fables.'' Second-graders recited passages from Shakespeare, Kipling, Longfellow. Third-graders studied Chaucer, Tolstoy, Sophocles. All knew the allegory in ''The Pilgrim's Progress'' and could discuss Aristotle's principles of logical thinking.
This was happening in a most unlikely place - in one of Chicago's blighted, inner-city neighborhoods where many of the children were labeled unteachable.
That was before they met Marva Collins.
This gifted dynamo of a teacher told the students in her first private, one-room Westside Preparatory School: ''I'm your friend and I'm going to help you all the time and I'm going to love you all the time. I love you already and I'm going to love you even when you don't love yourself.''
Her method: to convince the children she cares; that they can trust her; that they can accomplish anything they want to; that learning to read is hard work but they will learn. Her promise: ''I will not allow you to fail.''
Today her school has its own building (in the same neighborhood, an important point to her) and more than 200 students, with a waiting list of hundreds more. And Marva Collins is a celebrity whose story has been told in a TV drama, on talk shows, and in the press. Her innovative teaching methods have earned many accolades, while her outspoken criticism of the educational establishment has generated much enmity.
This book examines the Collins teaching methods. We are, in effect, offered a chair in her classroom to listen as she teaches (and preaches), while she doles out hugs and praise and nurtures self-confidence.
She tells students straight out: ''You are not going to become workbook idiots . . . to spend your time in here pasting and coloring and circling pictures. We're going to do some thinking in here.''
Everything depends on reading via intensive phonics drills, and an excitement she conveys for the world's greatest literature. It never occurs to her that children can't read and understand (and enjoy) ''Macbeth'' - so they do.
She never gives red marks or failing grades; believes in reading aloud, blackboard work, memorization, immediate feedback on papers. She stresses proper speech and pronunciation (no ghetto jive or ''black English'' allowed).
She provides her pupils with the role model of a well-dressed woman with self-esteem who loves children and teaching. She never sits behind a desk but walks among her students, watching their work and their behavior, coaxing a neat appearance and good manners as necessary concomitants for success in life.
She is an exciting teacher and her views, however controversial among educators, stimulate thought and offer hope.
The book, however, could have used some editorial guidance. It lacks chapter titles and an index, and at times it's repetitious. The constant shifting between first and third person is disconcerting. Coauthor Civia Tamarkin is understandably awed, but some journalistic objectivity on her part would have served the reader better. As it is, a defensive tone prevails, along with a feeling that some things have been glossed over.
But nothing can lessen the reader's admiration for a brave, brilliant woman who dares to believe in children when no one else will.