When a former student was starting her first job as a teacher, Jessica Lahey gave her a fountain pen and bottles of 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.
Lahey asked around and discovered bans on red-ink corrections are common — and despised.
From a middle school teacher: “Gosh, heaven forbid we express any sort of disapproval!!”
. . . From a writer and teacher: “Why…. because it hurts kids’ feeeeeelings? Pardon me while I barf.”
. . . 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.”
She found research by Abram Rutchick, a Cal State Northridge psychology professor, showing that people identify more errors and give lower grades when using a red pen, compared to those using a blue pen. NPR asked the professor what color pen he uses to grade papers. “I used a red pen, actually,” Rutchick said. “I have to override somehow my urge to be nice and kind.”
Yet Lahey is switching to green ink this year. “I had to recognize the possibility that I might be making my own students uncomfortable,” she writes. She hopes students will accept feedback more readily in a color that doesn’t say, “You messed up.”
Or her students will come to fear green ink.