In Praise of the Red Pen

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Late one spring evening, I was reading through a stack of papers that my students had written about fear in connection with their reading of Richard Wright’s 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 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 and the blood-splattered walls, about her calling 911 and waiting for her siblings to come home.

The next day, I thanked Sharon for sharing her story with me but told her 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. But she insisted that I correct the 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 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 that 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 kind of heavy-handed treatment of writing errors in favor of free expression and creativity. The various techniques to build fluency focused on the development of ideas, with correctness addressed in response groups during the editing stage of the process. I was told 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 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 students. It allowed them to tell their stories and validated their 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, where students like Sharon write their stories. But these days, I read everything they write, correcting much of it in bright red ink. I admit that sometimes I have moments of doubt: 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 into the process because standard English is not the first language of many of my students who come from African American, Latino, Asian, and Pacific Island backgrounds. Many are immigrants who speak their native languages 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. Process writing, 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. Simply allowing students to correct one another’s usage and mechanics could lead to additional errors, the reinforcement of bad habits, and wasted time. These students are about a year and a half away from graduation, and they 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 I correct get in the way of clarity and meaning and are more than cosmetic. I want students to view writing as a serious activity, one that is difficult but 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, students will benefit from constructive criticism. Demanding that students perform to their potentials is, after all, the greatest respect a teacher can pay them. Some 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. But when 16-yearolds are fluent in Spanish or Cantonese, there is little danger that they will lose it. Many become 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. Soon, 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 write 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 last May, I asked Sharon if I could have her story back to share with teachers who were studying ways to improve student writing. She thought for a minute. “I’d rather not,” she said. “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?” I asked. “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. And 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.

Sharon was part of a study I conducted during the 1991-92 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. From these, 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 had no problem with the way I marked up their papers. Many repeatedly commented that the corrections were helpful. Even those who said it made them frustrated and nervous felt that they’d rather have their errors pointed out so they could improve.

But there was one unexpected finding. Students said my close reading of their work promoted a closer reading of material in general. They reported in May that they were paying greater attention to papers for all of their classes than they had been in February. And they proofread more closely. They had never realized the importance of looking closely at texts—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, the mother of one of my students, a native speaker of English named Adam, came to school for parent’s 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.”

As a teacher in a multicultural setting, I must enable my students to tell their unique stories and, at the same time, promote growth and understanding. An important aspect of my job is to help students structure their stories “in an appropriate, acceptable form” so that their diverse voices may be heard in the wider society.

Vol. 04, Issue 08, Pages 46-47

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