Myra Barrs

Screenshot-2023-11-02-at-14.00.34

A personal memory

Myra was a scholar, a teacher, a leader, an adviser, a thinker, a writer, editor and a beautifully kind, observant and sensitive person.

I spent a year working with Myra and a group of primary school teachers on a project that would become a book, ‘A Year of Poetry’, published by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), where Myra was the director.  We ran a series of workshops across the year, which was a combination of teachers talking about how they were teaching poetry and us offering ideas. I learned from Myra how workshops like these don’t fit snugly into what we often think of as ‘in-service training’. Each of the people on the course had things to tell and each of the teachers wanted to hear what others had to say. Even though I was there to offer ideas about writing poems, I could see that Myra was acting as a listening chairperson so that the teachers could help each other develop.

There was another task, though. Each teacher had agreed to write up what they were doing in their classrooms so that it could become a book. In my naivety,  I thought that this would just happen! It was Myra who showed me that enabling people to do this requires a sensitive mix of encouragement, cajoling, coaxing and persistence. There was a gritty never-let-go thing going on there too. The job had to be done. The job would be done. Even so, that wasn’t the end of it. There was the editing. Again, I had thought that all we would need to do was sling these accounts together. Not so. Myra spent hours and hours poring over what the teachers had written, assembling photos, checking details, ensuring that the look of the book would be right and much more.

Thanks to Myra and this work, one bit of theory for me came out of the year. Well, it’s a theory of pedagogic practice, actually. It’s what I call the ‘poetry-friendly classroom’. What the year taught me and the teachers is that it’s relatively easy to do a single stand-alone lesson on poetry – reading or writing – using a formula of one sort or another.  However, if you want poetry to matter, if you want writing and reading poems to matter to children, you need to create an environment in which poems are part of a classroom’s daily life.

Together, the teachers, Myra and I started to develop ideas for what this poetry-friendly classroom is like, given all the other pressures and demands for time that primary school teachers face. This wouldn’t have happened without Myra and all those qualities that I mentioned in my opening sentence here. I can honestly say that that year working with Myra fundamentally changed what I thought about poetry in primary education and – just as important – how a set of workshops on that theme can run.

Myra’s work has affected thousands of teachers, children and parents. As a parent, I saw the Primary Language Record in action. As a guest, I watched with delight and admiration Southwark children reading their poems from the booklets that CLPE produced with them.

I also have one powerful and poignant memory of Myra at the moment when James Berry was just beginning to lose track of what he was doing. He was reading his poems but wasn’t fully aware of which poems to read or whether he had or hadn’t read this or that poem. Myra sat next to him, passing James’s  poems across to him, gently taking the poems he had just read and laying them to one side. It was a moment of tenderness and partnership at the heart of a life in literature.

By Michael Rosen

Subscribe to our Newsletter