Seeing Red

Since everyone brought up my lovely blog, where I ranted about teachers being afraid to tell their students they’re wrong and Fairon subsequently brought up grading in red pen, I thought I’d blog about this more lighthearted subject.

Or so I thought. I googled “what color should teachers grade in” and read a few of the top results. Apparently people have some pretty serious opinions on the subject; who knew?

This article says that, for a lot of educators, red is so irreversibly entwined with negativity in the classroom, “‘You could hold up a paper that says “Great work!” and it won’t even matter if it’s written in red’” (Joseph Foriska, elementary school principal).

The solution? Purple pens. Purple is a “pleasant-feeling” and “gentle” color and “less abrasive” than red. I found this quote particularly… evocative:

“It’s taken a turn from ‘Here’s what you need to improve on’ to ‘Here’s what you’ve done right'” (Vanessa Powell, fifth grade teacher).

I will come back to this quote later.

The next article I read was about how grading in red means more mistakes and lower scores. It talks primarily about two different experiments that had half of the volunteers grade an essay in red and the other half grade in blue. The volunteers with red pens found more errors in the essays than the volunteers with blue. The author also points out that these weren’t trained teachers, reinforcing the point that red subconsciously alerts us to hunt for errors.

The last article I read doesn’t offer new information, but it does present both sides of the argument. Basically, while red may be stress-inducing or lower self-esteem, switching to purple isn’t a viable solution because it will just teach students to hate purple instead of red.

So, what do I think about this apparently huge debate? First, Ms. Powell’s quote from the MSNBC article is just bullshit. How is that an improvement? Hey, instead of helping students know what needs to be improved, let’s point out how great they are and hope this will alert them to their mistakes and, because of all those warm fuzzies, they’ll fix their errors all by themselves!

Excuse my dripping sarcasm. This goes right back to my blog, how failing to tell students they’re wrong only hurts them more severely in the future. At least all the interviewed educators weren’t so deluded; reading and writing specialist Janet Jones said (at the very very end),

“I don’t think changing to purple or green will make a huge difference if the teaching doesn’t go along with it. If you’re just looking at avoiding the color red, the students might not be as frightened, but they won’t be better writers.”

Which leads to my next point from the second article. I fail to understand how it’s worse that the volunteers with red pens found more errors. Granted, this may be difficult to swallow for the student who has to get that paper back, but find more errors now, fewer errors will appear in the future. Because if you catch mistakes and point them out to your students (tactfully, mind you), then they can fix them and improve their writing as a whole. It makes sense, doesn’t it? Or am I just crazy?

Personally, I like grading in red. I often print out my work-in-progress papers/essays/creative writing and edit and revise them in red because it’s a lot easier to see than blue (which I’ve tried). Blue is a little easier to read when it’s felt tip, but line up a row of papers graded in the rainbow and red stands out the best (which color can you see easiest?).

But what all these articles—and the whole “to use or not to use red to grade” debacle—boil down to is student self-esteem. How does grading in red affect a student’s psyche? My opinion—I don’t think it really does. Sure, red is a negative color, but if your paper was covered in blue or green or purple, would that really make you (as a student) feel better or more confident in your abilities? Besides, negative connotations can be contrived for the other colors as well. My brother and I decided red is for blood, blue is for tears (that the teacher shed because you did so poorly), and green is for the tree blood your paper is oozing (because the teacher sliced it up with their pen because you did so poorly). And articles 1 and 3 make the really great point that switching to purple won’t solve the problem but exacerbate it, because now students will hate both red and purple.

We will not be helping our future students by babying them in this way, thinking they’ll shatter into millions of devastated little pieces if we tell them they’re wrong. It will not make them better writers, better students, or better people if we withhold their mistakes. Sometimes teachers need to stand their ground, hold firm, and say, “Hey, you’re wrong. But here’s how we can fix it.” Because they let everyone down when they’re too afraid to write “wrong” in red ink.

P.S. I’m gonna grade in all the colors. Keep them on their toes.


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