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When a Teacher's Red Pen Can Liberate

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Late one evening in April, I was reading a stack of papers that students had written about fear, in connection with their reading of Native Son. My orange-red pen followed my eyes, circling verb endings, crossing out the "s'' on "homeworks,'' and writing in the margins, "This sentence doesn't make sense.'' Then I came upon Sharon's paper and my orange-red pen stopped. Sharon wrote about a time, a few years ago, when she came home from school and found her father on the kitchen floor, stabbed to death. I gasped as I read about the gashes on her father's body, the blood splattered on the walls, about calling "911,'' and about waiting for her siblings to come home.

The next day, I told Sharon that I appreciated her sharing her story with me, but that I could not correct her writing errors. She looked puzzled and asked, "Why not?'' I said something about how special this story must be to her and that I thought it would be intrusive for me to mark it up. She remained standing by my desk and insisted that I correct her paper. I looked at her, incredulous, and asked, "You want me to put red marks on your paper?'' She said, "Yes,'' and walked back to her seat.

I then took the paper home and corrected it in my usual style: asking clarifying questions, circling mistakes that I thought she would be able to correct, and changing words or phrases where I thought she would not be able to correct herself. The next day, I asked her about a specific paragraph, and she and I rewrote it together. Two days later, she turned in the paper, rewritten.

I had been taught earlier in my career that the process approach to writing discouraged this heavy-handed treatment of writing errors in favor of free expression and creativity. The various techniques to build fluency seemed to focus on development of ideas, with correctness addressed in response groups in the editing stage of the process. I understood that highlighting the correct parts of a student's paper would eventually eliminate the mistakes. We were to give as much positive feedback as possible and to limit the criticisms. Furthermore, I was told, "If you're reading all of their papers, then they're not writing enough.'' Students were to write a lot, every day, even if the teacher did not read their work.

I was impressed with the humanistic nature of this philosophy and the respect it gave the students. It allowed students to tell their stories and validated their life experiences. It also created a friendly atmosphere in the classroom. The techniques I learned were valuable in furthering my understanding of writing and improving instruction.

Now, eight years later, my classroom is still a friendly place, with students like Sharon telling their stories. But now, I read everything they write, correcting much of it in bright red ink. I admit that sometimes I have moments of doubt: Are they not writing enough? Am I being obsessive about cosmetic matters? Am I frustrating or intimidating my students? Am I damaging their development? Stifling their creativity? Am I putting too much emphasis on the product rather than the process?

I have found it increasingly necessary to incorporate direct instruction of writing in the process because, for many of my students who come from African-American, Hispanic, and Asian and Pacific Island backgrounds, standard English is not their first language. Many in the latter two groups are immigrants who speak in their native tongues in class, among their friends, and at home. Not having internalized standard English, the immigrants and dialect-speakers have language needs that are not met through the technique of peer response and editing. It seems a disservice to allow them to write without my close supervision. For generating topics, exchanging stories, and helping one another develop them, the writing process, as I learned it, is still a valuable, humanizing activity. But for editing, proofreading, and correctness, I am convinced that the teacher must intervene. It is not enough just to point out the positive aspects of a paper; the errors, I find, do not disappear. To allow them to correct one another's usage and mechanics could lead to additional errors, reinforcement of bad habits, and time wasted. These students are about a year and a half away from graduation, and don't have time to go back and forth on each paper. Direct intervention by the teacher saves time while giving students a realistic appraisal of their skills.

Some of the surface errors about which I am so heavy handed get in the way of clarity and meaning, and are more than cosmetic. I want students to view writing as a serious activity that is difficult, but one which affords a great sense of accomplishment when done well. As for any deleterious effect on their psyches, I have found that if the process includes a lot of respect and emotional support, they will benefit from constructive criticisms. Demanding that students perform to their potentials is, after all, the greatest respect a teacher could pay them. Some of them have been through incredible experiences of violence, war, and starvation. I doubt that a few red marks are going to damage them, as long as they know that I care.

I am not suggesting that youngsters abandon their native languages and deny their heritages. Certainly, various linguistic forms are a part of the richness of a pluralistic society and should be honored. But when 16-year-olds are fluent in Spanish or Cantonese, there is little danger that they will lose it. Many become quite adept at handling two or more languages without giving up their cultural identities. My students understand clearly that in certain situations, their style of talk, whether a dialect or a different language, is appropriate, but that to succeed in society, the ability to communicate in standard English is essential. In a short time, many of them will be facing the challenges of college English; others will be writing reports and keeping records in high-tech jobs. Sending them out into the world without teaching them to communicate in the language of mainstream America is to set them up for failure. This would constitute, at best, a dereliction of duty on the teacher's part, and at worst, an insidious form of racism.

Late in May, I asked Sharon if I could have her story back to share with teachers who were studying ways to improve student writing.

"Well,'' she thought a minute. "I'd rather not. It's too personal, and I feel uncomfortable having strangers read it.''

"Then could you write down how you felt about having that paper corrected? Do you remember that I thought I shouldn't correct it, but you wanted me to? Could you tell me in writing why it was important that I correct your paper?''

She agreed to do that. A few days later, she handed me a piece of binder paper carefully folded. It read, in part (with errors still intact):

The main reason I said it's ok to correct my paper was because I wanted my writing to be improve.... The incident was special and important to me. Even though it was four years ago, but the memories just bleeds on and on. ... Right now, I only wanted to be happy. I pretend like this was never happen before. I don't know--as I got older, I feel more and more uncomfortable to talk about the situation. I know I'm different, but that's the way I am.

The first time I wrote the story. I was a little of intense but I like to share my feeling with other people and just hopefully they'll understand me.

As I rewrite the story, I feel gay about it. I mean you care and concerned about my work and I really appreciated it.

Now I realize that I'm not the only person who suffered about this, but to other people too and that person could be you, standing right there.

Sharon was a part of a study I conducted during the 91-92 school year to find out how my 11th grade students felt about the way I taught writing. In December, my classes (60 students) wrote a short reflection on how they felt about the way I had handled their papers, what had been helpful and what had not. Out of the issues that were raised, I devised a questionnaire which I administered twice, once in February and once in May.

I learned a few important things. Most notably, I found out that the majority of my students, like Sharon, had no problem with my marking up their papers in red. Many of them repeatedly commented that the corrections were helpful. Even the ones who said they became frustrated and nervous felt that they'd rather know what their errors were, so they could improve. On writing assignments which received only comments, a surprising number of students said that they preferred to have their errors pointed out.

One unexpected finding I came across was that my close reading of students' work seemed to promote close reading of printed material in general. They reported that they were much more attentive toward their papers for all of their classes in May than they had been in February. They proofread more closely now. They never realized the importance of looking closely at texts, either theirs or anyone else's.

As a person who learned English in mid-childhood, as a mother of English-speaking children, and as a teacher dealing with teenagers at varying levels of language development, I am convinced that literacy is a skill that involves a complex interplay of form and content. Close attention to form leads to close inspection of content, and over time, the connection between the two emerges. In February, Mrs. Eastwood, mother of my student Adam, a white, native speaker of English, came to school for parent day. In speaking of Adam's writing experience, she gave voice to my own thoughts: "In junior high, I observed that spelling and grammar were completely ignored, and as a consequence, Adam lost interest in writing. The art of writing, or interest in writing well, seems to involve both an appreciation for the idea as well as the structuring of that idea in an appropriate, acceptable form.''

Teaching in a multicultural setting involves enabling students to tell their unique stories and contribute to the evolving culture of a pluralistic society while promoting growth and understanding. An important aspect of my job is to help them structure their stories "in an appropriate, acceptable form'' so that their diverse voices may be heard in the wider society.

Ann Lew teaches high school English in San Francisco.

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