Red Pen or Yellow Highlighter?

While grading papers for a graduate class I'm teaching at St. Mary’s University recently, I realized my approaching to “grading” has fundamentally transformed since I began teaching in the mid-1990’s. It's become much more gentle. I used to read with an eye for errors; an eye for improvements needed.

I’d mark up all the things that were “wrong” and return papers to students for fixing.

I called this teaching and learning.

I even remember a college professor once encouraging us to do that with a blue, green or purple pen, instead of a red pen, so that it wouldn’t feel so “aggressive.”

Sadly, the color of the pen doesn’t really change the painful nature of this approach.

Growing up in cultural systems in which the focus is continually on “constructive feedback” about how I just haven’t yet measured up to someone else’s standard, has some pretty toxic side effects.

We become ...

  • externally focused

  • disconnected from ourselves, our voices

  • dependent upon others’ judgments and approval of us in order to feel safe or okay with ourselves.

  • suspicious of our own subjectivity

Simply imagining that someone might have a negative thought or judgment about us is often enough to inhibit and control us internally.

And it gets worse.

We then apply this version of “helping” to our relationships: Constantly scanning for what's wrong, what isn’t good enough, what is missing, what didn’t he or she say or do to meet our standards and preferences.

We take red pens to ourselves and one another in misguided efforts to serve growth, learning, awareness, development, intimacy and partnership.

So. Painful.

There is a better way.

A writing teacher of mine once suggested that I take a yellow highlighter, and begin all feedback sessions by simply highlighting all the words, phrases and sections of writing that I really enjoyed. During structured feedback sessions with students, she then suggested that instead of sharing my evaluations of the writing, that I instead share my genuine responses to the writing.

How did it impact me? What came up in me?

This was a paradigm shift in my teaching (and relationships).

Instead of being the “evaluator” whose job it was to identify what was not yet “up to standard,” I was able to just be another human being with ideas, responses, preferences and experiences to share.

  1. Starting with a metaphorical Yellow Highlighter builds a foundation of trust and goodwill.

  2. When there is trust and goodwill, we become more curious about each other’s perspectives.

  3. With curiosity and the desire to take different perspectives, comes learning, growth and exploration.

  4. We harness our natural, intrinsic desires to become competent in skills that have meaning and purpose for our lives.

I sometimes wonder … what if we approached relationships with one another in this way?

  • We’d let people know when they had a positive effect on our lives

  • We’d learn to share our subjective responses to one another without needing to claim or defend a “rightness” about our subjectivity

  • We’d ask for what we DO want instead of constantly focusing on what we don’t want

  • We’d be gentler, kinder and more direct with one another

  • We’d be less defensive, less scared and less wary of one another