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When No One Sees Red

Whatever happened to red pens?

Any middlesomething adult who recalls a demanding teacher will probably also remember the color red. Red circles around errors, red letters ("awk") in margins, red numbers at the top of tests. Comments were expected, anticipated, feared - and never hard to find. That was the point of red: You're going to get the message, kid, like it or not.

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Could feedback possibly be the same in soft, No. 2 pencil?

My former 12th-grade English teacher, who is about to retire, tells me that with her departure the school will lose its last advocate of ink that screams at you. So her younger colleagues use more politically correct blue or black? Nope. It turns out that many use pencil.

Now I wonder if my teacher's comments would have resonated quite so well in gray. She was one of those demanding educators whose expectations were high and who was never at a loss for words. When we got our papers back, red flourishes peppered the page, and we were treated to a paragraph of commentary. There was nothing subtle about it.

But now the soft touch is in. Many educators, my teacher figures, are simply nudging students. Pushing them slightly, perhaps, but erring on the side of not disturbing the muse within - even if that muse doesn't have dangling modifiers and logical development entirely under control.

This is a self-esteem issue, apparently. Make a tough call, especially in reductive red, and you damage the ego. You may dry up the writing. (You may also anger parents and then waste a lot of time placating them.)

And it's an aesthetic issue. Another teacher, a 12-year veteran, tells me his students object to marks on the page - even if those marks are crossing out the "ums" and "uhs" he says they write into their work. The un-word-processed comments mean students will have to do something again. At least when done in pencil, they can be erased.

When we were students, my friends and I rolled our eyes at red pens. How unimaginative, we thought. But the teacher's stand was clear, and the good ones put strong comments and strong grades on the page. They were the teachers, after all - the ones who have gone before, as the Japanese say - and they had a statement they were entitled to make. An 'A minus' could make your day. A 'C plus' could do the opposite. A red sea on the back page wasn't a good sign. But boldly stated, those red marks set standards that could teach students a lot as they strove to meet them.

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* Comments or questions? Write to Learning Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail

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