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

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''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.

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.

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