Red is angry; green is calm

It was my own daughter, poetic and to the point when discussing her feelings, who pointed this out to me.

“When a teacher writes all over my paper in red pen, I feel like she is angry, like I did everything wrong,” she said in her third-grade voice. “Can’t you use another color, like pink?”

Thus began the first of many years of gel pens -- in all colors except red – editing papers in the hands of student, parent, and teacher editors. And it makes perfect sense – to students who are hyper-aware of indications of approval, red is an angry color. It is passionate, it is flaming, it is mad; and students who write poetry know it.

Correcting in blue or purple or green -- or even black -- opens a discussion on paper. To discuss with a student the strengths and weaknesses of a piece is not to scold or to shame or to criticize. Marking corrections, acknowledging good insights, refining the organization of a thought – these are the hallmarks of good teaching.

If the red pen simply places a grade at the top of the page, with no specific comments, even an “A” lacks value. It is in the detailed discussion, in the give-and-take between teacher and student and the ultimately-revised paper, that learning happens. Students who receive respectful, specific advice from teachers and peers learn to critique their own work. They learn to analyze good writing, to correct flaws in an argument, to question in a positive, helpful manner. And they feel heard.

When a class listens to and comments on a piece in progress, each member of that group begins to feel as though he is important. His comments count; the author is grateful (or not); the creative process is shared. The quality of the critique lies in specific details that are appreciated or questioned.

Powerful as it seems, the red pen lacks authority; it steals power from the author, and appears all-knowing. Students must retain ownership of their work to gain self-esteem; giving them the choice of changes that are offered in peaceful green or humorous orange or delicate pink makes them laugh and want to try again.

first published by Marie Furnary
 7/23/09 on
North Fork SchoolComment