The Blue Pen Code

On the first class day of any semester, there are some things that happen no matter what course I happen to be teaching.  Like most teachers, I have a certain spiel; some of it changes and evolves, but some of it stays pretty constant. Here’s one of my “greatest hits”.

You have to understand what I see when I’m up here talking and looking out at you. Most of the time in a typical math class, there’s just a sea of dozens of dead faces. And that’s bad, here’s why.

I try to be responsive to all of you. If you’re all bored, then I need to be speeding up. If you’re all lost, then I need to be slowing down. But here’s the thing: lost face and bored face are identical. So if you’re confused, if you want me to clear something up, if there’s something you think we should talk about as a class, I need you to let me know. Otherwise, I’ll probably respond by doing exactly the opposite of what you need. Not to punish you, just because I can only respond to the cues you actually give me.

And folks, I understand if you’re embarrassed. But this something that you need to find a way to do.  I once had a student who sent me an email that said, ‘I’m too nervous to ask questions in class; so between you and me, when I hold up my blue pen, that means I’m in trouble — help!

In the business, it’s what they call a “laugh line”.  And as laugh lines go it’s a good one; they always laugh.

So if anyone needs to set up a ‘blue pen code’, just email me and we’ll work something out.

More laughter.

And it’s the damnedest thing, but in every class, every term, I get a person or two who takes me up on it.


I’ve had baseball cap codes and braiding hair codes and cell phone codes. So that’s, what, six-to-ten people a year that I connected with only because of that gimmick! (And it’s not my only gimmick.)

Here’s the thing. There was never a blue pen code. It all started the first time I told the story. And it’s done a lot of good since then. People have written me, long after the course is over, to tell me what an impression that story made on them, what it said about me as a teacher. So am I just a big liar? Am I saying that story’s not real?

In the movie No Country for Old Men, the Tommy Lee Jones character tells an implausible tale of a man’s failed attempt to slaughter a cow. He tells this story to make a certain point about how the world works, but later he’s called out on it and asked if that story was real.

His response: It’s really a story.

See, this is what it’s all about. The typical student comes into the math classroom seeing the teacher as an adversary. Maybe because they don’t really want to be there but it’s required, maybe because they think they can’t do math, maybe because some past math teacher was horrible to them, whatever.  So on day one, my top priority is to take students outside of their expectations and bring us all to a place where as many students as possible see me and themselves as on the same side of something.

And I’m not above much of anything toward the cause of connecting with students and making my classes a memorable experience. Exaggerated gestures, crazy voices, pantomime sketches, whatever it takes. And stories about blue pens.

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