The Magic Pencil, Or Tools of the Trade

One of my favorite scenes in Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone book occurs in Ollivander’s wand shop when Harry learns about the wizards’ most powerful tool: their wand.  Ollivander explains that each wand is unique, and that a wizard will never achieve ideal outcomes when using another wizard’s wand.  As Harry tries wand after wand, nothing happens except the discard pile grows and grows until finally he finds the perfect match and sparks begin to fly, literally.

By now you are probably wondering what any of this has to do with academic productivity?  Or pedagogy?  Or anything remotely relevant to

My topic today is what I like to call “The Magic Pencil.”  The Magic Pencil (MP) is my grading instrument of choice, and it has fundamentally changed that part of my time which is spent grading papers.  My MP may not be your MP–you might not even like to grade in pencil.  You might prefer green or purple or even the verboten red pen.  Me, I have to grade in pencil.  But let me be clear, when I say that I have to grade in pencil, I don’t mean that it is mandated by my dean or my college, nor am I suffering from Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.  But grading in pencil, and grading with the Magic Pencil in particular, has markedly improved the quality of my grading life to such a degree that I am loathe to grade with other utensils unless it is absolutely necessary.

So what is so great about the Magic Pencil?  Before I get to the list, I should point out that I teach English, so the bulk of my grading is essays rather than short-answer questions, equations, or multiple-choice.  I can grade objective assignments in ink without issue, but grading essays is an entirely other ballgame.

  • In general, I find that grading in pencil is easier and faster than grading in ink.  For me this has everything to do with confidence.  If I am grading in ink, I automatically slow down and become much more cautious about what I can and cannot say.  Ink is, after all, permanent.  When I grade in pencil, I can move more quickly through the paper and jot down my thoughts, reactions, and questions as I go.  I need not worry about being too harsh or too vague at this point, not do I concern myself with handwriting.  Knowing that I can go back and edit or supplement (or erase) my comments later on frees me from worrying so much about the best way to make a suggestion or ask a question.
  • I can also take my time assigning grades.  Usually, I will assign a grade after reading through the paper (with comments), but I used to worry that I was being inconsistent, especially when I had more papers to grade than I could get through in a day or two.  Using pencil allows me to record my gut response to a paper, but if I find that my higher expectations at the top of the pile are tempered by the reality of execution halfway through, I can adjust the scores easily.  I also like to avoid slash grades, those A-/B+ or B+/A- marks of indecision that would have driven me right off the edge had they been in vogue when I was an undergraduate.  I like + or – grades, but I do not like both at the same time on the same essay.  And yet, there are plenty of times when I find myself on the fence between A- and B+ or B- and C+. Grading in pencil allows me to defer that call until I’ve finished the stack and gotten a better sense of the spread.
  • I do go back through the pile and mark the final grade in ink just to avoid any temptation that students might have to change their grades.  I haven’t had that happen yet, but I decided that I’d rather not ever have to fight that particular battle.  Going over the grade in ink gives the final mark a nice finality.  It also forces me to remember to record the grades in my gradebook.
  • But the Magic Pencil is not just any old pencil. My weapon of choice is a Sensa Classic .5mm mechanical pencil.  I didn’t find it in Diagon Alley; I happened upon it in a card and stationery store many years ago while in graduate school.  I, being poor, didn’t buy the pencil then, but I never forgot about it, and a year or two later, I happened to find one on E-Bay, and the rest was history.  But whichever kind of writing utensil you choose, be sure that you can grip it comfortably.
  • At the end of the day, no matter how fancy, a pencil is only as good as its eraser.  I wore the Sensa erasers out long ago.  Instead of replacing the tiny nub over and over again, I opted for a separate eraser.  My favorite is the Staedtler brand Mars Plastic–they remove any and all traces of former remarks or indecision.

What kind of pen or pencil do you use to grade?  Do you have other tools or tricks that have helped you to streamline the process?  Please share in the comments section below.


[Photo by Flickr user Horia Varlan and licensed through Creative Commons.]

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