The Demise of the Red Pen…

So I come into work a couple days ago with my well-worn travel mug full of fairly traded coffee and do a bit of that work that just piles up on your desk reinforcing student notions that
1) you are a hermit,
2) you are a messy hermit, and
3) all you do is mark things.
When I finally get around to it, I check my bloglines account, and come across a post by Marshall McLuhan Konrad Glogowski entitled Readerly Comments . Brilliant.
The next day, I check my bloglines account again, and there’s a post from Aaron Nelson discussing the same article. Isn’t it great when someone else picks up on the same thread at or round about the same time? Makes you feel like you are really onto something, no?
McLuhan pulls no punches on this one. It is honest. It is right on. He notes the shift that takes place in being a teacher…the shift from being a reader who reads to being a reader who marks, and his attempt to step away from that role:

“I stopped writing as someone who cares only about syntax and organization and who has forgotten what it means to get lost in a good piece of writing. I stopped writing as someone who is reading to assign a grade. Instead, I started reading as someone who wants to learn, as someone who cares about ideas, as someone who wants to join a conversation.? ( McLuhan  Konrad Glogowski  )

That conversation is so worthwhile to join, isn’t it? What if, as McLuhan suggests, we invested our ‘marking’ time in really trying to engage with student work. What if we invested in walking through the text instead of skimming from an ‘objective’ distance?

“I have never learned anything from my teachers’ checkmarks or their efforts to summarize my work in one banal phrase, such as “Excellent,? “Well done!,? or “Keep up the good work!? I do not expect my students to take my comments seriously if they suggest to them that their work can be summed up in “Great effort!?? ( McLuhan  Konrad Glogowski  )

Right on! Aaron adds to McLuhan’s comments on the pithiness of marking by asking, “What good is a grade anyway? Does it really mean anything to the student? It means something to report cards, or rather on them […] But when you get right down to it, do they really mean something to students?? ( “Teachers as Conversation Fire Starters? ).
I totally agree, but I also want to say mea culpa . As much as I agree with the above, the ‘great work’ and ‘keep it up’ phrases have snuck into my marking vocabulary. Perhaps it is trying to wade through the onslaught of 20 some student journals, or trying to survive marking 24 student essays that makes you surrender your brilliant education to the summative nothingness of ‘good job’ comments.
I remember a university prof who would put phrases such as ‘exquisite’, ‘fluid’, ‘astute’, and ‘superfluous’ on papers. I enjoyed reading his comments. He gave me an A++ once. Yup. A++ in a fourth year university course, if I remember correctly. I was in my mid twenties, finishing up my English degree. I felt like a kid who had just won a sand castle building contest. We both knew it wasn’t a real mark, but that didn’t matter. The fact was he recognized the effort and ideas I had pumped into that paper.
I’ll let you in on a little secret….
I give A++’s too.
One of the best things I learned about teaching didn’t come from a teaching pedagogy or methods course, it came from an English 400 course on modern Epic literature.
He actually had something to say about what you wrote, not just ‘see comma-splice on pg. 4’, but he connected with your ideas (and, yes, he would point out the comma-splices as well) . What a disservice to sum up a week or mores worth of student effort, sweat, and tears (even if it was done the night before) in one or two words: ‘needs work’, or ‘this is good’.
Yeah. Thanks for that.
Where’s the recycle?
In the last while I have started picking one or two student works (in this case, blog entries) and really trying to respond to them. Trying to get into it, praise what I see happening, engage with their learning, converse, and you know what? I am learning from them. My comments on Ben’s post stating the purpose for his blog are an example of this. It is a great feeling, walking through the written thoughts of someone else. Sometimes it is a stretch, but I think it is a worthy endeavor to “leave conversations behind? ( “Teachers as Conversation Fire Starters? )
My advice: never end on a bad note. Always shuffle a few of those names that you have come to trust down to the bottom of the pile. The other day I ended on a bad note. It sucked the life out of me, bummed me out big time. I think it is good for your professional life to save a piece you expect to be good for the end.
Aaron’s advice:

Wouldn’t we become more valuable to our students if we leave our grading hat in our desk drawers, you know what one I’m talking about, the one that makes you respond in red  ink and numbers. ( “Teachers as Conversation Fire Starters? )

Right on, Aaron. This year I made the pedagogical shift of permanently misplacing my red pen. It is great, liberating, and somewhat of a big statement that the ‘marking pen of death’ has been ditched. I think it is a big statement, marking in pencil. It takes away some of the almost assumed or perceived god-like authority that red ink entails (After all, don’t a lot of Bible’s put Christ’s words in red ink? Probably non-related, but an interesting connection…)
There’s my two cents worth.

redux…my apologies if this post has appeared in your bloglines account many times over. It seems there is some kind of editing problem with my wordpress account, as code is not publishing as typed. After many edits, I have give up. The link to Konrad Glogowski ‘s “Readerly Comments” is:
Aaron Nelson’s “Teachers as Conversation Fire Starters”

Technology….great when it works, no?


redux: Mar. 5/06….Thanks to“> Anita for pointing out my error in quoting Glogowski’s article. I had taken the author from Glogowski’s quote at the top of his blog template (McLuhan…). My bad. Thank you for pointing that out, Anita.


16 thoughts on “The Demise of the Red Pen…

  1. I read both of the mentioned posts couple of days ago, but without yours I would, in my hurry, somehow let them go by. Thanks for dragging my attention to this topic with your rich commentaries. Well done 😉

  2. It’s amazing how you revert to what was done to you.

    I’ve just started marking student work (being a teacher-in-training on my first practicum), and the first thing I did was grab for the red pen.

    Thanks for suggesting the power of pencil.

    My sponsor teacher today called herself “old-school”, when comparing our different lesson styles. What is the opposite of old-school? Maybe I am “new-school: fresh and brilliant” (?). Or maybe it’s just that i’m “young-school: lacking the wisdom of experience”(?).

    But regarding the infamous red pen, your posting inspires me to extend my “un-old-school” style into my marking life. Recreate the marking cap.

    – Mark

  3. Mark,

    Thanks for your comments.

    I think the pencil reflects grace as well. The red pen means you have to commit to your comments, but you can always erase the pencil.
    I had a moment the other day where I had marked student work using a pen, but then went back and changed marks. I had been a bit too generous…so, when I handed back work, students saw I had originally given an 8/10, but then scribbled out the 8 and changed to 7.5 .
    They didn’t like that so much.
    It was an interesting conversation, as they felt I was teasing with the mark or dangling the higher mark and then taking it away.
    I had just readjusted my thinking.
    I guess it goes to show that the pencil is mightier, but I think it was valuable for students as well, as they saw the mark in progress; they saw their teacher reflecting and reconsidering…I guess it just wasn’t in the direction they wanted me to go!
    I hear you on the whole ‘old school/new school’ thing. Sometimes I think what I am doing is fresh and radical…I think ‘man, I am turning this place upside down…’, but then I realize that I am really just doing what so many other people have done: trying to teach in a fresh way.
    I look at some of my fellow teachers who have been teaching for a long time. It is really easy to start seeing them as the ‘old guard,’ with new teachers like us representing everything fresh and new…but the more I hear from them the more I realize I haven’t a sweet clue!
    I guess we need each other. They need our ‘fresh and brilliant’ niavete and we need their staying power and wisdom.
    It is a tough one to try and keep that in mind, at least for me it is, and at the same time I already feel like I am losing my lustre…like my edge is already lost after not much more than a year at it….it is a scary feeling.
    I think one of the most meaningful student comments I got was via e-mail after I had completed my first english 12 session. A student wrote me and said they enjoyed my ‘thinking outside the box’ and challenging things. She said to never stop doing that, to keep on pushing the boundaries…
    I printed it off.
    It is in a file marked ‘career highlights’ in my filing cabinet.
    I guess our challenge is to try and stay outside of that box while at the same time being relevant in our teaching. How do you challenge the system when you have become ‘the man’ that everyone is supposed to stick it to?
    tough stuff….
    Thanks again, Mark.
    here’s to good use of the pencil!

  4. James, being a good and attentive reader 🙂 I noticed an important slip of the (?)… Since I don’t want to use a red pen :), I’m writing this in comments section. That post on Readerly comments was not written by McLuhan but by Konrad Glogowski. Probably worth correcting. 😉

  5. Anita,

    thanks for pointing that out. My bad. I have fixed the citations on the original post. I think what happened is that I saw his quote from McLuhan in his template header and thought he was the blog author. Strange. I have quoted Glogowski before, but apparently I thought his blog was a team one…
    Thank you for pointing that out to me!

  6. Pingback: Teacher in Development :: Test Subversion 201 :: March :: 2006

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  8. James,

    Thank you for your masterful writing and insights. I just came across your site in my search for meaning in my own grading. I, an English teacher, am presenting to fellow English teachers on the topic of postive and meaningful grading techniques when grading student writing in a few day. I would love to reference your words and blog in my presentation, with your permission of course.

    I, too, recently discard the red pen in an exchange for a host of colors. Not once did it occur to me to use pencil! Genius! I love it! Responding in a meaningful constructive manner is my ultimate goal. Helping students to improve their writing skills and mere appreciation for writing is what drives my techniques when grading; however, I have not 24 essays to grade but 131 essays to grade. Sometimes substance is sacrificed for time. Your words remind me of why I became a teacher – not to save time.

    To Mark,
    Keep at it. Don’t let the old-school take away your passion. Our educational system needs innovators and risk takers!


  9. Not to be a posting-hog but, I just re-read these comments. I am a fourth year teacher and am really feeling the syndrom of becoming the old guard. My advice to you, should you choose to accept it, is not to doubt the innovation. Don’t doubt the fire inside to do something new, even if it doesn’t work the first time or the last time. Don’t question what you know the students really need. The grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, terms, literary elements, stories, authors even writing jargon, they will pick up on the way with or without you. What they need from you is to see an adult who is passionate about what he does. That is what they will remember. Challenge them. Challenge thier thinking. That is what they will remember. Just because the old guard does it different doesn’t mean that they do it better. Learning comes from inspiration and, emotions are contagious (both are fact). Pass on the inspiration to learn. They don’t get that from the old guard.

  10. April,

    thanks for your comments.
    Feel free to ref. me in your presentation if it is helpful.
    Sounds like it will be an interesting one…yes. What is meaningful grading? For some, I guess the letter grade or the number /100 is good enough, but I never really found a lot of meaning or reinforcement in it. Sure, I loved the high number/letter, but was it helpful to me as a learner? Not really…
    I think marking in pencil really is a crucial ummm…reflection of pedagogical shift on the teacher’s part. They join the class, in a sense, in writing in pencil. It also makes their words less authoritative, in my opinion. They can be erased, changed (which is really practical for me, as sometimes I make errors or want to change my comment, or…gasp…even the mark!)
    Marking in pencil shows that we are willing to remove ourselves from the ‘powerseat’: it gets us out of the hole ‘small town cop’ routine in a way.
    I know this is just a pencil I am talking about…but I think it is a radical change from a red authoritative pen to the old hb…and my guess is that students notice something about it. Maybe not the big implications, but even the more subdued tone of the pencil vs. red ink is calming in a way…red ink is so ‘in your face’ and glaring. Who wants to read that?

    131 essays…wow. My hat is off to you on that one, as I struggle sometimes with 25. I agree with you that ‘sometimes substance is sacrificed for time’. Definitly. I think we need to do that sometimes just to save our sanity.
    I have started to just focus on a few or more…really work on big comments, and then switch next time. Also, sitting down and walking through with ones who are having trouble. I know it is really blatant, but in high school it seems to be less of a trend. Too busy pushing through that curriculum to slow down….check out Aaron Nelson’s post at Teacher in Development around goofy and running hurdles. It really smacked me upside the head….I mean really.
    Thank you for your comments. Keep them coming, they are great!

  11. April,

    responding to your second comment here….thought I would break it up so I don’t lose any important stuff.

    Thank you very much for your encouragement. I gotta say that I am just over a year into this whole teaching gig and I already feel like I am losing my edge or compromising or whatever the proper term is. It is really demoralizing to feel this way…

    Don’t question what you know the students really need. The grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, terms, literary elements, stories, authors even writing jargon, they will pick up on the way with or without you. What they need from you is to see an adult who is passionate about what he does. (you)

    Holy crap! (sorry, very non-prof. language…but had to say it.)
    Thank you for that. I really needed to hear it. I think I am going to have to blog about that, if you don’t mind. I agree with you. The important stuff to me is not the technical curriculum stuff…sure it is important to know grammar, etc. but, yes, students need to see passion lived out! They need that kind of model!

    Thank you. I would comment more, but I would just be quoting your words of encouragement.

    Now, I don’t know you, but it sounds to me like you aren’t a part of the ‘old guard’. It sounds to me like you are one of those instigators; one of those teachers who is thinking outside the box.

    Do you have a blog? If not, let me encourage you to grab some free net real estate. I think you have things to say.

    thanks again, very uplifting.

  12. I’m glad I could help. I like to think I’m part of the new guard but, sometimes I really question myself. Teaching is so impossible but, I try to keep what’s important in mind. It’s easy to get bogged down by details, even by those around us who think they are being helpful when really they’re just stamping out our fire.

    About the blog question. I have to say I was researching this whole red pen issue, which led me to your blog, where I noticed how you used it with your class and, was inspired to create my own – so I did right there that same night. That’s how I know you inspire your students because you inspired me and I don’t even know you. I haven’t used it yet. We are in the midst of our big standardized test here and classes are pretty much halted for the next week (I’m in Louisiana – about 40 miles North of New Orleans) I’m really excited about where it could lead my class.

    Thanks for your fire.

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