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The Dreaded Red Pen

Teachers spend a majority of their post class time marking and reading papers. It is a wonder then why an activity that takes up a chunk of our time seems to spark so much uncertainty. When I was student teaching, I was handed a stack of student work every week without much direction or say in how my cooperating teacher wanted me to mark them. At first, I found myself falling into the trap of marking surface mistakes (misspelled word here, wrong grammatical use there), but I soon realized that the revised papers I was receiving, weren’t any different from the first drafts I gave back. When I pushed the kids to think more about what they were writing, the main response I got was, “What do you want this to look like so I can pass?”
Nancy Sommers describes this as one of the main problems in commenting on student writing. The teacher’s comments take the student’s attention away from their actual work because to them, the only things worth revising are the mistakes the teacher points out. The essay turns into an activity of trying to please the teacher rather than revising their work in a way that allows them to clearly express themselves better. She also warns of the habit most teachers fall into of writing non-text specific, interchangeable comments. These comments give students vague directions on how to improve their writing without actually supplying any specific strategies in which to do so. When you are grading multiple essays at once, I feel like this is a trap easily fallen into. I do agree with what she states on page 154 in that responding to student writing was rarely stressed in teacher training or in writing workshops. Speaking for myself, I simply mirror what my teachers did in high school. Learning how to comment on student work is something I’ve picked up along the way, which in retrospect could have meant picking up some bad habits as well.
One main criticism that Richard Haswell would have with my commenting habits is that I take on too much. In his opinion, we should encourage the students to correct their own grammatical and spelling mistakes. By simply putting a check next to a sentence with a mistake, the student must then find the error themselves and correct it. “It engages students in an activity that comes much nearer to the very activity they need to learn, namely editing.” (Haswell, 601) He stresses that the more the students do, the less the teacher has to do.
Peter Elbow believes that teachers at times don’t even need to grade or read student’s writing at all when they are assigned low stakes writing or rather- informal writing. I found myself agreeing and liking a lot of what he stated in “High Stakes and Low Stakes in Assigning and Responding to Writing.” To Elbow, informal writing can be just as important as formal writing when trying to improve a student’s work. His freewrites or quickwrites prove as a way for students to get out their jumbled thoughts without the fear of being graded or judged. Isn’t that why a lot of us write first drafts to begin with? Then when it is time for high stakes or more formal writing, students have a better idea of what they want to say. He also stresses the advantages of zero or minimal marking. Since students see any type of teacher comments as criticism, one can minimize the level of defensiveness by looking for the positive in every paper. This is a strategy I always used because I found when having to correct a student, to keep them from feeling disappointed or discouraged, it always helped to open with a few things about their paper I found effective or engaging.
In “Ranking, Evaluating, and Liking: Sorting out Three Forms of Judgment”, Elbow stresses the importance of evaluation over ranking. Students can get so caught up in seeing an actual number or grade that they stop caring about the learning process itself. In this aspect, he echoes what Sommers previously has said in that students will change just about anything in a paper for the sake of a grade. Instead of simply working towards that A, Elbow prefers that the student take his evaluations and make changes that enhance their writing and that develops their voice.
I think Elbow said it best when he states that when a teacher is marking a paper, they must ask themselves a few questions. “Is this comment worth it? How much response do I need? How much criticism will be useful? What is the likelihood of my effort doing good or harm?” (Elbow, 10). Although time consuming, it’s easy to take a red pen and simply mark a paper with numerous comments and criticism. We as educators must find a way to not only train our students to recognize their own mistakes in their writing, but to also push themselves to write in a more clear and effective manner because they want their voice to be concise, and not because we circled a sentence in red pen and wrote “needs more clarification.”

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7 Responses

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  1. Rachel Duso says

    I agree with Haswell that we shouldn’t be correcting the mistakes for them with our red pen and then having them fix it and hand it back to us with only those corrections. If we want students to actually learn something then we can point out the mistake and they can find what and where it is and correct it, hopefully having learned something. The only problems i see arising out of this is that students will either not do the work or the teacher will wind up underlining every sentence that has a mistake and that can possibly mean almost the whole paper since student more formal writing has become more and more poor.

  2. Victoria Fontana says

    It is crucial to, as you wrote, ” to keep [students] from feeling disappointed or discouraged.” Beginning commentary with truthful positive responses that will lead into constructive criticism may allow students to recognize their and further utilize their strengths. This can also balance out the dooming effects of discovering weaknesses. It’s important to help build up a young person’s confidence in a truly honest way. Too much criticism may instigate a student to shut-down. It’s human nature to defend oneself and retreat at the point of pain, much like a fight-or-flight response. (For some reason, people tend to deliver bad news more often than compliments.) Students might work harder if they know what strong points they have that can be utilized in the development of weaknesses.

  3. Dana Choit says

    As I was student teaching, I too “took on too much”. At first, I commented on the overall ideas and structure in addition to grammatical errors. I definitely learned along the way that this was too much. I gradually came to the conclusion that while grammar was important, it shouldn’t be so heavily marked up. I too always like to include positive commentary before providing additional advice. I think the dilemma that is then presented is, how do you make sure students are aware of grammatical errors yet focus on what’s important? The process of multiple drafts allows for the mechanical to be later focus, but in cases where there are no or few drafts, I really liked Haswell’s idea of the check or x system on the margins (and even especially on lets say a second or third draft). I like how it points out errors but lets the student’s work to find them, as well as providing some leeway that doesn’t call the student “stupid” but allows for the possibility that they simply made some accidental mistakes or minor errors. However, I’m not sure that his notion that it doesn’t really interfere would hold water. It may not interfere in the same manner that a fully marked up paper would, however, seeing those marks to the side still signals you have errors and if a student is accustomed to correcting what is on the paper only they may look to fix the mechanical errors and anything else in the teacher’s comments and still leave it at that (like what Sommers describes). You point out that students asked you, “what does this need to look like so I can pass?” and this problem can still occur in utilizing these techniques. I liked Elbow’s use of informal writing to help build strengths and allow for students to think more about what they are doing. I think Sommers talk of teacher comments as “too vague” and “non-specific” is definitely something that is done by a lot of teachers and writing more specific comments can help guide students to think more about “what they are trying to say”. Also, I think something that wasn’t mentioned that I think will also help to do this is asking questions! Instead of saying what you think the student is saying- you can ask questions to help the student understand that perhaps what they meant wasn’t totally clear.

  4. mobrien says

    I think I agree most with the theories that advocate for a grading system that asks questions of the writer. I’ve always been a decent writer, and I’ve always enjoyed writing. For me, the best way a teacher could have motivated me to revise my work was to ask questions in their feedback. If there was a question posed, I immediately wanted to answer it for the teacher, and while I tried numerous times to verbally explain my thoughts or elaborate on my points, my teachers always said the same thing: answer their questions through revisions, additions, edits to my piece. It’s easy to look at some grammatical errors, fix them up, and re-submit. But, this doesn’t require a student to look at their writing in a critical and reflective way. Higher level questioning is a key component to classroom discussion, so why not carry that trend into written feedback, too?

  5. Christopher Grimm says

    Michelle, I really like the title of your post. I remember when I started graduate school a few years ago, after a seven year absence from academia; there was an immediate culture shock. One of the most enlightening and bizarre revelations I experienced was the new “philosophy” involving the red marking pen.

    Apparently, it is psychologically shocking to students to receive comments in red ink! Whether it’s the obvious blood metaphor, or just the striking contrast with black printer ink, red is a “faux pas” for teachers. This is especially true of the middle school environment, where many of us have jobs; using red ink is not acceptable anymore.

    A quotation from one of the supplementary readings for our “Philosophy of Teaching” Assignment” stands out for me: “But the fact is we are sages and we are on a stage,” writes Rob Jenkins in “A Philosophy of Teaching.” Jenkins points out a very necessary fact: we ARE the authorities in our classroom. Certainly, not one of us, even Professor Ferguson, believes himself/herself to be the “be all, end all” of the English discipline. However, to our students we are the (“a?”) link to scholarship in our classrooms. I was raised with this respect and awe for teachers; the red pen is symbolic and rightful of this role. Perhaps this idea is outdated. Thoughts?

  6. Kevin L. Ferguson says

    “Speaking for myself, I simply mirror what my teachers did in high school.”–I think this is a really telling comment. In effect, you’re showing how your own teachers weren’t just commenting on your writing, but were also teaching you how you should view your work. So, you were learning something not only specific to your assignments, but also something more general about what you should do with that work once it was “finished” and you turned it in.

  7. trevor11 says

    I have to agree with you Michelle on how you grade your students work. I too have mirrored my high school teachers good methods but that came with the bad habits of leaving surface comments and not really addressing the deeper and more important aspects of my writing. However I will also agree that I have picked up on better habits along the way but the statement you pulled from the article is spot on, responding to student writing is most certainly not stressed in teacher training and now I find myself needing to REALLY think about what I am writing on my students papers so that it is meaningful. At the same time I feel like this goes back to an earlier discussion about intrinsic desire to improve ones work. I can’t say that even now in my graduate studies I don’t sometimes get a paper back and simply do what I must to pass. It’s a terrible reality.