By Jeremy Venook, AmeriCorps member serving on the Wellington Management team with McKay K-8 School
Of all of the tools at any tutor's disposal, few are as potent as the red pen.
A few months ago, it emerged as the most feared weapon in my arsenal. When the students hear that tell-tale “click” announcing its emergence from my pocket, they know that no spelling error, no misplaced comma, no conjugation error is safe. It didn’t take long, though, for the students to realize that the red pen presents an opportunity rather than an obstacle. Now, hardly a day goes by without at least one student seeking me out for feedback.
More impressive than their embrace of the red pen is the fact that the shift happened, more-or-less, without my input. Even in the 5th-grade, their mindset has changed: school is, after all, a place to learn, and there are few lessons more important than finding their areas of improvement and learning to correct one’s errors.
One student in particular has taken this lesson to heart. Where once her papers were riddled with misspellings, she now regularly sidles away from my desk with nary a red mark in sight. The key, she said, was her diary at home: now, instead of just using it as a place to record her personal thoughts, she treats it as another chance to practice her writing, breaking out her own dictionary and red pen in her room until she’s sure she’s got it right.
Serving as I am in a 5th-grade English Language Arts (ELA) classroom, spelling is, without a doubt, one of the most prominent areas for improvement. Only rarely, however, are any of these mistakes a matter of carelessness; rather, they are a sign of the students’ rapidly growing talent as young writers. As their vocabularies, their grasp of literary techniques, and their ambitions grow, they often find themselves venturing out into waters they have not yet charted, and they have accepted the red pen as among their many guides. It is for this reason that some of them, particularly those who are counted among the ranks of McKay’s many English Language Learner designees, have even begun to hold up their red-marked papers as a badge of honor, a testament to their increasingly active pursuit of knowledge. After all, as my favorite book, The Phantom Tollbooth, puts it, “You must never feel badly about making mistakes…as long as you take the trouble to learn from them."