Poems and letters are links between school, 'real world'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

''As soon as the praise started,'' says Annie Burgoon, ''the quality of the work improved immediately. Kids wanted to spell words correctly. They'd ask, 'Is this comma in the right place?' They started asking the questions you'd hope an educated person would ask.'' She says some of those who never did homework before did a complete turnaround.

Ms. Burgoon, who teaches English at Westford Academy, a public school not far from Lowell, Mass., believes that bolstering self-esteem fosters creativity and achievement. But she feels that students need to receive praise from their classmates even more than from their teachers.

'The kids seem to feel that if I'm the only one who reads their work, it doesn't count,'' she says.

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She decided to try letting students evaluate one another's work, using the exercise to develop what she calls ''old-fashioned pride.''

To launch her program, Ms. Burgoon brought in batches of poems and taught her students about similes, metaphors, and other figures of speech. Then she ''turned them loose to see what they could do.''

She encouraged them to take favorite poems as models, using the style and format as a frame on which to hang their own ideas.

Student poems - with the author's name printed on the back of the sheet - were posted on a bulletin board, and were evaluated by the whole class.

''We didn't give grades,'' Ms. Burgoon says. ''I call it a 'praise round.' I encouraged the kids to find something they liked in each poem.'' Even when the comments were critical, she says, they were fair. ''Kids need constructive criticism, too,'' she says, ''or they'll take the easy way out.''

The anonymity of the review process was designed to prevent the evaluations from turning into a popularity contest and to reduce shyness and self-consciousness. At first the technique helped remove fears, but later it proved to be unnecessary.

''Kids want to share what they do,'' the teacher said.

When the students decided they wanted to submit their poems for publication, Ms. Burgoon warned them the poems might not be accepted. But, she reasoned, even a rejection letter would represent a real-world contact.

''They can't do any more than say no,'' she counseled. ''And you never know unless you try - they could say yes!''

Seeking to encourage risk-taking, and ''to get that pride factor back into them,'' she urged them to submit their work to a national publication. ''Why start at the bottom?'' she asked her students. ''Aim high!''

Having completed their poetry project, the Westford Academy ninth-graders have embarked upon a new venture - writing letters to corporations - and are eagerly awaiting the response. ''Letter-writing is going out of style,'' Ms. Burgoon points out. ''We have kids now who don't practice letter-writing as a life skill. It's so much easier just to call.''

''I told them to pick a product they had used themselves,'' she explains, ''and to write letters of criticism or praise.'' She adds that they've chosen to write many more complimentary letters than critical ones, and that many students , on their own initiative, offered suggestions for improving the products.

If there's one lesson Annie Burgoon has drawn from her work, it's the importance of bringing real life into the classroom. ''Writing has to be a practical outlet,'' she says. ''Maybe that's the transition we have to make.''

Editor's note: We would like to share the letters that accompanied poems submitted by ninth-graders at Westford Academy. Space permits only a few excerpts:m

Dear Editor . . .

''. . . my classmates thought my poem was glad . . . .''

- Robbin Baker ''. . . we would like to enroll our poems in your newspaper.''

- Susan Wheeler

My teacher . . . is holding me hostage until anyone of my poems are published. I hope these poems are taken into great consideration, so I can go home.''

- Bruce L. Johnston

''I feel that my poem should be read carefully.''

- Roberta Garside

''Enclosed is an opinionated view. . . . This does not necessarily express my personal views, but the views of some.''

- Eric Eldridge

''Freshmen may seem to be young people but we can write poetry, according to our English teach[er] and fellow classmates.''

- Joelle Morgan

''I think . . . if other schools see what Westford Academy is doing then they might want to do the same thing.''

- Bryan Lombardi

''I think you . . . might even find someone with quite a bit of poetic talent ready to be explo[i]ted.''

- John Kozimor

''You will soon be getting many letters like this asking to publish their poems also, but I think mine has a different style to it. . . .''

- Tom Spicer

''I think your magazine will benefit from our poems because you can find out what young people really think about the world.''

- Laurie Lynch

''Although it is not long it gets to the point.''

- Andrew Strauss

Editor's note: Here are two of the poems written and evaluated by the ninth-graders at Westford Academy:m

'Freedom is a mountain' Freedom is a mountain an empty forest a tree against the night sky a cool summer breeze It releases you from confusion for a while Freedom is a mountain always on the horizon over the next hill just a few hours away So near and yet so far Freedom is a mountain an uneasily obtained goal a hazardous barrier a new beginning It has dangers unforeseen Freedom is a mountain but remember? mountains have been climbed before.

- Michael Malik

'Life' Life is like a rollercoaster ride sometimes we play and sometimes we hide. Like a lovely bow or an ugly knot sometimes we accept it and sometimes not Like a broadway movie that has no end a story to which our lives we lend Like a wondrous adventure with exciting parts we rejoice to be alive and love with all our hearts.

- Tracey Guilmette

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