Harold, the hero in Crockett Johnson’s classic book Harold and the Purple Crayon, uses his imagination and crayon to create an adventure. Off Harold goes, using his waxed stick to draw a path, along with a moon to use as his navigational aid. During his escapade, Harold’s crayon creates a forest, an ocean and a hot-air balloon. Harold explores until he is ready for bed, then sketches his way home.
Since my first reading of Harold’s exploits, purple lines have held magic for me. In contrast, red marks signal my creativity to stop. Conventionality weighs heavy on a red pencil. Purple seems positive, imaginative and quirky. When I needed to mark on my students’ papers, I chose to emulate Harold.
With my purple pencil I’d only mark the items that were correct on spelling and math work. Mistakes were left alone. With necessary writing, as in editing a research paper or story, I’d place a purple suggestion next to the words to be corrected.
To do a rewrite, I’d ask the student to get his or her favorite colored pencil, and we used that color to edit and rewrite the piece. Otherwise, it all got done, yep, in purple pencil.
My purple pencil was not a punitive pencil.
The purple pencil was for catching my students doing something right.
Tisha (by the way, I don’t use my students’ real names if I think I might embarrass them or otherwise!), a new first-grader in my class, was teary-eyed about the 50-word spelling dictation we did every week. Assuring Tisha that I only expected one word out of the 50 to be correct on the first attempt, she went to work. Spelling dictation acted as a tool to help me see what reading and spelling rules were needed. Every correct word designated a spelling rule that a student understood.
As I checked papers I’d use my purple pencil to mark the correct spellings and then place a plus sign and the number correct at the top of the page.
Spelling all 50 words correct indicated a 12th-grade spelling level. With eight rotating lists, the spelling challenge was to get one more word right each week. A big mountain for a first-grader to begin, but I felt these 400 words gave my students an overview of what a literate person needed to know.
Week after week, Tisha’s number of correct words increased. During her second year in my multi-age classroom of first-, second- and third-graders, Tisha continued her spelling journey. Tisha and many of my third-year students were spelling 25 words correctly, which put them at a sixth-grade spelling level. After Christmas Tisha told me that she wanted to get all 50 words correct on a dictation before the end of school.
Tisha worked and reached her goal the first week in May. Very impressive for a young lady whose native tongue was not English.
Tisha’s classmates enjoyed boasting of Tisha’s accomplishment to visitors. A lunch guest asked Tisha how she managed to learn to spell so well.
”Well,” Tisha answered. ”I tried to get one more word right each week because Ms. Maren only worries about the words that are right.”
Needless to say, I learned a lot from Tisha.
How easy it is to find everything wrong with a child’s work or behavior, to mark up life with a red pen and a minus sign. A purple pencil and a plus sign accomplish so much more as we travel the path of learning. It’s fun, and it works.
Ask Harold. Or Tisha.