Black and White and Red All Over

by Guest Blogger
August 13th, 2012

by Jessica Lahey

I can be very, very stubborn. I am sure my parents, husband, sister, sons, friends, in-laws…pretty much anyone who knows me well can attest to this. When something or someone I love is criticized, my first instinct is to suit up for battle, stare the enemy down until he or she bends to my will while I bash them into submission with my keyboard.

So when my beloved red ink, the ink of choice for teachers everywhere, was implicated as a weapon of teacher cruelty and cause of students’ suffering, I dug in my heels.

So much so that when one of my former students was given her first full-time post as a teacher this year, I searched and searched for the perfect fountain pen, and then, to complete the gift, provided a couple of bottles of lovely red ink.

She sent a lovely thank you note – in red ink, of course – because she has to use all of that ink somewhere. It won’t, she reported, be used at school, because teachers at her new school are not allowed to correct student work in red ink.

I had no idea. Despite my love of researching and reading all things educational, I’d somehow managed to miss this entire controversy.

I looked around, and asked some teacher tweeps and Facebook friends about the situation, and yes, it’s a thing. Apparently, the red ink controversy rears its head every decade or so.  My first reaction was to mock the entire “controversy.” I know, I know -hello haters, I see your ire rising – but many of the early comments I got back from teachers and psychologists egged me on.

From a middle school teacher: “Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!”

From an adolescent psychologist: “That is nuts. How much should we coddle kids?”

From a writer and teacher: “Why…. because it hurts kids’ feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf.”

From an education writer: “Oh. God. No. I remember sitting through a PD about this and how dispiriting it supposedly was for students to get papers back marked up with red ink. We read a piece about a group of teachers receiving training in this, which concluded with the newly enlightened and chastened teachers dropping their red pens in the trash as they marched out the door. Gag me.”

From a professor: “… boy can I tell which students have never seen red ink before. They also happen to be the same ones who have a nervous breakdown or have their parents call me when they get anything less than an A. One of them actually told me, ‘I don’t like it that you give edits in red ink. It makes me feel like I’m not perfect.’

And again, from that same professor: Two years ago, one of my students told me he preferred red-ink edits. He said it made him pay attention, and it made him see those edits as corrections and learning moments rather than just notes that he might’ve perceived as optional or not important.

As you can see, the overwhelming reaction to the complaints about red ink was a strangled, gagging sound.

But then, a teaching miracle occurred. One of my former students offered up evidence. Actual, real, live evidence. This is sheer heaven for for me, particularly because this former student has become a teacher himself. It turns out that NPR, among other news outfits, covered the red ink controversy a while back. Guy Raz interviewed Abraham Rutchcick on All Things Considered about an article Rutchick published on the subject in the European Journal of Social Psychology.

I listened to the NPR piece, then located the original article. According to Rutchick’s article, “The Pen is Mightier Than the Word: Object Priming of Evaluative Standards:”

Because red pens are closely associated with error-marking and poor performance, the use of red pens when correcting student work can activate these concepts. People using red pens to complete a word-stem task completed more words related to errors and poor performance than did people using black pens (Study 1), suggesting relatively greater accessibility of these concepts. Moreover, people using red pens to correct essays marked more errors (Study 2) and awarded lower grades (Study 3) than people using blue pens. Thus, despite teachers’ efforts to free themselves from extraneous influences when grading, the very act of picking up a red pen can bias their evaluations.

I was torn. I love my red ink. I have a large bottle of it at school, all sorts of red pens in felt-tip, rollerball, ball-point, and some fancy artists’ felt tips I bought for a small fortune in an art supply store in Paris a couple of years ago. I save those for extra-special editing.

I can’t imagine parting with my lovely collection just because a few students might be a little irked by the color. Besides, I have this lovely letter from a former student, decorated with comments I’d written on her papers over the year I taught her, and it just makes me so happy when I look at it. She saved those papers, valued those comments, and used them to become a better writer. How bad could red ink really be?

To seal the deal, I offer up the concluding questions from the NPR interview:

RAZ: Professor Rutchick, you are a psychology professor at Cal State Northridge, right?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I am.
RAZ: And when you grade papers, what color pen do you use?
Prof. RUTCHICK: I use a red pen, actually. It’s – I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.

See! Even the author of the study that reveals the catastrophic psychic harm red ink can do to students is keeping his red pens!

Just when I was determined to hold on to that red pen until someone pried it out of my cold, dead, fingers, a discussion heated up on my Facebook page:

From an editor at a major publishing house: As an editor I was always taught to use pencil, not pen, because authors might balk at the permanence of pen (as if the edits were a mandate and not a suggestion). Now I use Track Changes! I do know of one editor who objected to using red (pen or pencil) for its even more dictatorial connotations–he didn’t want an author flashing back to some horrible childhood experience. Also, I remember a teacher once writing “awkward” in the margin of a junior high writing assignment, and it took me years to get over!

And from my always-logical mother-in-law, Kate, a writer and former law professor: I had no trouble requesting “accommodations” from my students, but only when it made sense. Pissing people off over the color of ink I used just didn’t seem worth it, either personally or pedagogically. [...] The red-ink phobia wasn’t my imagination; I regularly heard students complain about teachers who “bled all over their papers.” I’d rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink.

There it was: “I’d rather have a student focus on the content of my comments than on the color of my ink.”

I may be stubborn, but I am also a sucker for a reasoned, evidence-based argument. And, as I have been engaged in my own “Classroom Happiness Project” thanks to Gretchen Rubin’s book The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home, I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable rather than sacrifice my precious red ink. Gretchen writes about how important it is to “acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings” in her book The Happiness Project, so I am.

This year, I will be correcting my students’ papers in…drumroll…forest green. It’s my favorite color, and if there’s any possibility that my comments will be more readily heard in green rather than red, I’m willing to retire the red ink.

So if anyone out there needs to dye some clothes or whip up a batch of fake blood for Halloween, I happen to know where you can get about a half-gallon of quality red ink, cheap.

Jessica Potts Lahey is a teacher of English, Latin, and composition at Crossroads Academy, an independent Core Knowledge K-8 school in Lyme, New Hampshire. Jessica’s blog on middle school education, Coming of Age in the Middle, where this piece also appears, can be found at http://jessicalahey.com.

15 Comments »

  1. I am not at all convinced, Jess, that Rutchick’s studies lead to definitive conclusions. This is from the article itself:

    “Due to time constraints associated with conducting the experiments in a realistic setting, little was known about the participants beyond their presence in the university environment; their age, ethnic background, level of education, and other factors were not assessed. Several of these individual differences, such as verbal ability, educational background, and field of study, could influence participants’ ability to detect errors, their propensity to mark them, and the harshness with which they make evaluations. However, these uncontrolled differences should manifest as random variability, and thus make it more difficult to detect the effects we report. A second concern is that participants likely had little experience marking errors and evaluating others’ work. It may well be the case that, while inexperienced evaluators are subject to the influence of red pens, trained teachers who are accustomed to making corrections are unaffected. In future studies, we intend to examine this issue by comparing novices to teachers-in-training and experienced teachers, directly examining the potential role of expertise in moderating the red pen’s influence.”

    To me it seems plausible that some of these inexperienced participants might have associated the red pen with the “teacher role” and made more markings for that reason. (I suspect that teachers, already being teachers, would be less likely to respond in this way.)

    Also, the article does not address the question: were the additional corrections and lower grades warranted? Are lower grades a bad thing, if they reflect the quality of the work? It is possible that the users of the red pen felt more responsibility to address the errors they saw–and that their evaluations were in the end more accurate. I don’t know that this is so, but it’s a possibility.

    At my first school, we were told to refrain not only from using red pens, but also from marking on student work, period. We were supposed to write our comments on Post-its. I found this silly (and impractical), so I did write on my students’ work, in blue, black, or green ink.

    I don’t think it would have hurt my students to see corrections in red pen, considering the respectful tone I established in the classroom. As it was, I worried that my comments didn’t stand out and that the students didn’t always read them. (Not that they’d always read red corrections, either–but at least they’d see them.)

    Students have to learn to take corrections and criticism without fear. Teachers should be conscientious about it, of course, and make thoughtful comments along with the corrections. As I see it, a student who learns to accept corrections in any color will be better prepared to scrutinize his or her work.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 13, 2012 @ 10:04 am

  2. I like the author’s conclusion. I am also suspicious of the self-esteem movement, but there are a lot of kids out there who are afraid to write. They need some encouragement not just correction. I also think it is important to not correct all of the errors in many students’ essays. I subscribe to the lowest-hanging-fruit theory. Start with the most egregious errors like basic punctuation and work your way up to the more advanced punctuation and grammar issues. Too much marking up of a student’s essay can be discouraging. Also, I think shorter and more frequent writing assignments are better than longer and less-frequent essays, at least in the public school environment I work in.

    Comment by Jim — August 13, 2012 @ 11:42 am

  3. Use of a yellow highlighter over whatever pen color is a fine way to capture your students’ attention and focus and avoid the red ink controversy

    Comment by Bill — August 13, 2012 @ 1:08 pm

  4. I had a tenth grade teacher that way back in the 80′s get rid of her red pen, but she did one more thing that made a real difference. She would edit correct in green, but make positive comments in purple. I remember searching for the purple first and then going back and looking at the green. Seeing something positive was a great incentive toward improving my writing. Plus we all really like her.

    Comment by DC Parent — August 13, 2012 @ 1:15 pm

  5. Great post, Ms. Lahey, but don’t you think it’s only a matter of time before your students begin to associate forest green with error and criticism? You may end up sacrificing another of your favorite colors to the whims of pop psychology.

    Seriously, I think you should use whatever color you bloody well please. The real take-away here is that teachers should make such choices for themselves, as you did.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 13, 2012 @ 1:50 pm

  6. Use whatever ink you want for my kid’s work but provide feedback that is specific and gives direction. And please, leave the self-help stuff out of the classroom.

    Comment by S. Bridget — August 13, 2012 @ 3:20 pm

  7. Reading about red-editing pens conjured up feelings of deja vu for me. Several years ago, back when my son was in second grade, his great teacher Katie (a true believer in Core Knowledge) brought me up to speed on the ink wars. She told me that the current Edworld thinking was that red was a confrontational, “hot” color, that would stimulate aggressive emotions in students when they saw it on their returned papers. Advanced thinkers were recommending purple ink as more soothing, less apt to hurt tender feelings.

    In 2012, purple ink wouldn’t work here in Minnesota – it is the primary color of the worse-than-horrible Minnesota Vikings football team. Purple is to Vikings fans what red is to bulls: it inspires rage and frustration and a desire to charge into the nearest person (fortunately, I’m immune to purple rage; I root for a team based in a wholesome Wisconsin city that in January, 2013, will avenge last season’s fluke playoff loss to a team based in Satan’s Lair: New York City).

    The ink melodrama brings up a larger question that has puzzled me for decades: what is the best way to teach composition skills? Composition and grammar are the only academic subjects I’ve ever taught in a formal way; my college’s English Department hired a few upperclassmen every year to tutor freshmen in those areas, and I tutored for three semesters.

    Grammar was easy to teach, and easy for the freshmen to learn. Most of them just hadn’t had good instruction and drills in grammar during K-12, but most students picked it up quickly. But composition came much harder: improvement over four months seemed ponderously slow and unsatisfactory.

    My sense, even 33 years ago, was that the large majority of students, even most of the best students, hadn’t read enough good books to develop an “ear” for good writing. Nuances of tone, precise wording, etc. were lost on them. Moreover, their content knowledge about almost everything was so sparse that they really had nothing to say (hint: pitch for Core Knowledge).

    Isn’t developing this “ear” for language a major part of a solid liberal arts education? Isn’t this an irrefutable reason for requiring our kids to read far more serious books, essays, articles, etc.? I speak from long experience in government and private sector jobs that good writing skills can vault careers ahead, and poor writing skills can limit career opportunities. So if a great liberal arts education makes for superior writing skills, the liberal arts aren’t just for dreamers – they are also a valuable vocational/technical skill.

    My layman’s sense is that extensive, high quality reading is one of the two top requirements to become an effective writer. The other requirement is to have skilled teachers/editors, who do line-by-line editing/commenting for student writing and who each uses up dozens of RED pens every year (and who are, of course, provided the time to perform such editing /feedback.

    Many great writers and teachers read this blog. Tell us: what makes for a good writer?

    Comment by John Webster — August 13, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  8. So many comments to respond to!

    @Diana, I don’t think the article answered the question either, but then again, I live with a physician/statistician who loves the chance to disabuse me of any sense of certainty. I love the questions more than the answers, and was wondering what might pop up here! Thanks for the comment.

    @Jim: me, too re: self-esteem movement.

    @Bill: great idea.

    @DC parent – this is brilliant. But I can just imagine grading papers while juggling colors…I’d go insane. Plus, I tend to grade wherever I have a few free minutes in order to get it all done…what a mess. But I love this idea.

    @James: I don’t know. We’ll see…I teach my students for three years in a row, so there’s certainly that risk.

    @S. Bridget: no worries, it’s not my usual can of worms.

    @John Webster: There’s the whole dark blue/light blue Duke/UNC dichotomy in my house, and as a writer, I certainly think providing an education in writing is one of the most important things I do in my life. As I mentioned above, my husband is a physician, but he’s also a writer, and he considers this skill to be the most important arrow in his quiver (to mix metaphors with S. Bridget’s answer) even as a scientist. What makes for a good writer? Lordy, that’s a question for another post. I’ll get to that asap. :)

    Comment by Jessica Lahey — August 13, 2012 @ 4:10 pm

  9. I have a dream that one day public school teachers will be judged, not by the color of their ink, but by the content of their comments. I have a dream.

    Comment by Fred Strine — August 13, 2012 @ 7:26 pm

  10. Fred, that is quite a dream. I am with you there.

    John, yes, good writing has a lot to do with developing an ear for language. That requires a great deal of listening, period.

    Once students know how to hear what they read, then they can develop an ear for language even in silence.

    They won’t pick up on everything. A teacher needs to point out certain subtleties and take them through certain passages. So, they need to listen to the teacher, too.

    I may be wrong, but I believe that the loss of listening in our schools–thoughtful, alert listening–has ramifications throughout the curriculum.

    Curiously, the “Listening and Speaking” section of the CCSS barely refers to listening at all. It’s as though it didn’t matter.

    As for ways to teach writing, much depends on the grade level and subject, but I believe it helps students to establish what they want to say. (That might not be entirely clear in the first draft, and that’s fine.) Once they know what they want to say, the ways of saying it become clearer.

    Of course, certain kinds of writing go beyond the explicit statements to something subtler. That’s much more difficult to teach. It’s best taught by example and recognition, I think. Teachers do well when they show examples of that kind of writing and perceive it in students’ work.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 13, 2012 @ 10:17 pm

  11. Fred Strine, FTW!

    I’m one of those who quoted in Jess’s piece saying “gag me.” So I view this as a non-issue, but if Jess thinks it helps her teaching to go green, well, you go (green) girl. I’d laugh out of my classroom anyone who told me not to use red ink. I felt as a teacher I was discouraged from giving too many corrections period, regardless of the color. That’s a much bigger concern of mine.

    On Listening and Speaking, I spent the entire day in a conference room in Albany with over 100 trainers, who will in turn train teachers across the state on using Core Knowledge Language Arts in K-2. Listening and Speaking is what we spent most of the day talking about, specifically as one of the primary mechanisms to deliver on Common Core.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — August 13, 2012 @ 10:36 pm

  12. I received the following comment from a former student this morning as an email. She was, indeed “paralyzed” by negative feedback when I first met her, but clearly, she survived:

    [Dear Jess},

    In short – please don’t stop using red ink (at least the figurative kind). You or any of the other incredible middle school and high school teachers we so unknowingly lean on as we grow up. I wish I had encountered more red ink in middle/high school, and it makes me very sad to think our response to studies like Rutchick’s is to stop.

    I understand Rutchick’s premise – red ink is associated with errors and poor performance, therefore, students completing tasks in red ink have increased quantities of errors in comparison to there black ink counterparts. I can’t read the full article, and this in and of itself begs a lot of questions (is this intrinsic to red, or any contrasting color to black? And is the argument this is a social construct associated w the color red, or any color first used to identify fault in the study?), but that’s a different story. What I can’t understand is the “and so” conclusion inevitable here – and so, we should not use red ink??? Maybe if the following are true – books like Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, The Iliad and the Odyssey are challenging reads for students under the age of 18 – they struggle and loose faith in their ability to critically think…so we should not read them. OR asking students to stand up in front of their peers and present, either a personal piece or a powerpoint, is incredibly anxiety inducing – they often feel frustrated and embarrassed by their performance…so they should not have present. OR (my favorite) asking a student an open ended question is a task beyond a <18yo brain – they find it paralyzing, sometimes tear inducing…so we shouldn't. If the theme of education is that points of stress and anxiety are counterproductive to learning, or that committing to an idea to only be told that it's wrong hinders education (points that there is quite a bit of literature against) then yes, red pen must also be lumped into a similar category I suppose.

    As the student who found open ended questions paralyzing, let me admit to one of my other major flaws – my fear of the red pen. I hate it – it makes me feel hurt, inadequate, frustrated, and angry all at once…and I did not see it enough growing up. Instead, it was a periodic grading injury, easily seen, felt and then quickly forgotten. As a result, I graduated from high school incredibly afraid of the red pen and all it had to represent… and I really regret that. Middle and high schools put students through all sorts of painful experiences that we NEED more of – standing up and presenting in front of you peers for the first time (I thought, no hoped, I was going to die right then and there), learning how to problem solve with problematic classmates, doing a science experiment wrong 10 times in order to finally understand how to do it correctly. We don't attend school to be comfortable, we are put there b/c it pushes us…and pushing isn't easy, and sometimes it hurts. I would argue that middle and high school is exactly where the red pen NEEDS to be – it's where anxiety and fear of failure needs to be. But as teachers, mentors and parents – isn't it our job to guide the student through that experience, not steer them away? To teach them to recognize feelings of anxiety, of failure, of frustration and then overcome? The most successful peers I had the chance to be around as a graduate student and a resident are phenomenal failers (I know this is not a word, but I do not mean "failures", I mean "failers") – they're not handicapped by the figurative red pen, but they've learned to lean into it, to recognize why it's necessary and reap the benefits of that correction, as opposed to remain cowering in the corner trying, paralyzed by the anxiety of being wrong. I struggle in the latter group, trying late and hard to learn to step out of that group in my late 20s…and I wish someone had made me do it in the safety of middle and high school.

    Whether educators chose to put dont down the red pen or no, I hope they dont put down all that it symbolizes. No matter your students future profession, whether they steer towards a chronic education path like mine or enter the workforce right out of school, one thing is for certain – they may not use their AP Calculus knowledge, and they may never truly need to remember what year the Emancipation Proclamation was signed….but they are going to fail, and fail gloriously. Right now, on a national level, our students are arguable under-educated in the fields of reading, math and science…lets not also deprive them on the opportunity to learn to fail well.

    Comment by Jessica Lahey — August 14, 2012 @ 7:19 am

  13. Wow. That is a splendid comment from your former student. It should be published somewhere.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — August 14, 2012 @ 9:51 am

  14. Even at the supposedly ‘best’ public schools in Gotham, the quality of teacher feedback on student writing varies tremendously, but the standard is set pretty low. Elementary schools don’t touch penmanship, and in middle school it has been routine for my son to wait weeks to get papers back, with minimal comments.

    Forgive the terrible pun, but red ink is a red herring.

    My primary concern as a parent is that my kids are not given much meaningful feedback at all, and grow mistakenly used to the idea that their writing craft is already well-developed when in fact they need to push a lot harder. And be shown the way.

    Professor Rutchick’s 2010 article, like Professor Hacker’s more recent musing on Algebra, makes for fine entertainment. And it may even help the author’s career.

    But if our collective goal is Educational Excellence and Equity for All Children, as CK says, then we need less ‘peer-editing’ and a lot more (thoughtful) red ink.

    Comment by Matthew — August 14, 2012 @ 11:37 am

  15. Well said, Matthew, but I’ve got to throw a word in for those beleaguered English teachers. We try to provide substantive feedback, but the system denies us the time and resources to do it properly. Consider the university system, in which professors often have TAs to assist in that process. I was a graduate TA for two years and remember well the crunch-times I spent grading essays, sometimes at the expense of my own studies. My professor/boss would accept nothing less than substantive feedback on every essay, and he was right to insist on that. Public schoolteachers, however, often have greater class loads than your typical professor and less time to grade. And somewhere in there they are supposed to make time for themselves and their families. It has long been an untenable situation for them, and most would do more if they could. I’m sorry for making excuses. I just happen to think the excuses are valid.

    Comment by James O'Keeffe — August 15, 2012 @ 1:45 am

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