Monday, April 25, 2005

Purple Ink

One of the stranger gripes I have been hearing lately is that some teachers, somewhere in the country, have supposedly switched from grading papers in red ink to grading them in purple ink. This, according to the critics, is supposedly to spare the feelings of children who might be jarred by seeing exactly the same criticisms written in red as opposed to purple.

First, what difference does it make if the teacher uses red ink or a different color? I recall having teachers who preferred green ink or black felt tip marker. The grade is the same, the comments are the same, so if the teacher prefers not to use red for any reason whatsoever, who cares? (And why do they waste their time caring about something so petty?)

Second, if it truly does help some kids learn if their corrections are in a less jarring color than red, what's wrong with helping them learn? Personally, I don't recall seeing red corrections as any more stigmatizing than those written in other colors, but if some kids do... why should I object to a teacher doing something to help them learn?

I do recall one teacher I had, who had a habit of writing a large, red grade on each paper, enclosed by a red circle, using a rather thick felt tip marker. As she returned papers to students, she would flash the grades to the class in what I think she hoped would be regarded as an accidental manner. If she were somehow forced to use purple, and believed that interfered with her attempts at stigmatization, I think she would have simply made her grades and circles even larger.

A woman after George Will's heart?


  1. Peripheral to the main entry, George Will gripes:

    Because children are considered terribly vulnerable and fragile, playground games such as dodgeball are being replaced by anxiety-reducing and self-esteem-enhancing games of tag in which nobody is ever "out."

    In what form of tag are people "out"? The way I played tag as a kid, you would have a kid who was "it", and that kid would try to tag somebody else who would then become "it" (usually with the rule of "no tag-backs.")

    I do remember some rather murderous players in various games of dodgeball and murderball. Not quite to the point of the Chinese team in South Park, but on that track. Presumably, to Will, they were providing an important and necessary lesson in the cruelties of life to those kids nerdy or uncoordinated enough to be their consistent targets.

    Will also grouses:

    The sensitivity police favor teaching what Sommers and Satel call "no-fault history." Hence California's Department of Education stipulating that when "ethnic or cultural groups are portrayed, portrayals must not depict differences in customs or lifestyles as undesirable" -- slavery? segregation? anti-Semitism? cannibalism? -- "and must not reflect adversely on such differences."

    Is he being intentionally obtuse? You can teach about, say, anti-Semitism, and teach about particular anti-Semites and anti-Semitic movements, without also teaching a prejudice that Arabs or Germans are anti-Semites. You can teach about slavery and Jim Crow laws without also teaching a prejudice that all southerners are racist.

    Will gripes:

    Experts warn about what children are allowed to juggle: Tennis balls cause frustration, whereas "scarves are soft, nonthreatening, and float down slowly."

    What does that have to do with being unduly soft on kids, as opposed to being practical and intelligent in the teaching of juggling. A frustrated kid who is constantly chasing runaway tennis balls isn't learning to juggle. The same kid, learning to juggle scarves in what amounts to slow motion is learning how to juggle. Could Will have picked a more absurd example for his thesis?

  2. i don't know Aaron - I gotta disagree with you (sad, I know). I do think the hullaballoo over red ink is just that. It's petty and people should stop being so sensitive and just deal with it. Red is red - meaning WRONG. Teachers make corrections just for that reason - to tell you where you went wrong and where you can improve. It also stands out. What's the big deal? Isn't the bigger issue that people are uncomfortable with criticism?

    That's the problem that I think Will is trying to highlight (albeit unartfully) in his article - the oversensitization of kids today. No kid can ever be wrong or different.

    Growing up, a red mark on my paper wasn't shame, it was disappointment. I didn't want those red marks, so I'd work harder.

    In your second quote from Will, you omitted the first sentence

    Sensitivity screeners remove from texts and tests distressing references to things such as rats, snakes, typhoons, blizzards and . . . birthday parties (which might distress children who do not have them).

    Isn't that just a little extreme? What are we going to do then? Personalized text books that adapt to match the economic situation of each student?

    I do have to make a disclosure - I grew up in a society where there is very little coddling and a lot of emphasis on education. You study till you finish college and don't look left or right - so maybe I'm a little conservative when it comes to things like this. Or perhaps desensitized.

  3. I think I mentioned having been graded in green ink and black felt tip. Does that mean that green is red, and black is red, also? Or does it mean that a correction means there was a mistake, no matter what color pen is used? (In context, "green is wrong" or "black felt tip is wrong".)

    But even that's not correct, unless your teachers were a far inferior breed than mine, because my teachers would at times write comments like "Good!" in the margin, using the same pen. So sometimes with my teachers red meant "right" - meaning GOOD WORK.

    I did remove Will's comment about "sensitivity screeners" - and a lot of others. So what? How many "sensitivity screeners" exist and how many snakes have they stripped out of text books? Will can't even identify one, just as he cannot identify a single teacher or school district which now has a "purple pen" policy. I don't have to jump at Will's fish hook, particularly when he forgets to attach any real bait.

    Where did you go to school, btw? I can claim the UK and Canada for my public school years. (Well, in the UK, that would be some of my grammar school years....)

  4. I guess my point was that I agree with you that it doesn't matter what color is used to point out corrections. But then I departed from your view, that if people are stigmatized by red, what's the harm in using purple. I think that if it doesn't matter what color is used - then what's the problem with red? It is bright, it does stand out. I see it as excessive coddling and maybe you don't.

    I frequently got "Good Work" (no, I'm not boasting - just trying to show that it happened often), but that wasn't in blue or green or purple. It was in red, and red simply meant correction or change or suggestion. I guess I just don't understand how people got so sensitive that the color of the pen used (and red is used pretty universally) is so stigmatizing.

    All of my primary schooling was in India... so heavy British influences.

  5. I'm still waiting for some numbers - where are teachers converting from red to purple, let alone in significant numbers, and let alone with the express explanation Will provided?

    But, whether it's 0, 1, or a million, we will still disagree. Corrections and grades don't need to be stigmatizing, and stigmatization is counterproductive in an educational environment.

    I've been reading laments about "kids these days" for years, some of which date back to Ancient Rome. "And they're grading the kids with purple pens" is about the lamest lament I can recall....


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