Free Thinking for Schools

School Radio-Poetry Workshops for the Poetry Society at the BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival, Sage Gateshead, 6-8 March 2018

This week I was fortunate to be invited by The Poetry Society to run a series of hour-long school workshops in partnership with a BBC Radio 3 production team as part of the 2018 Free Thinking Festival at Sage Gateshead. The idea was that the students should write poetry on the Festival theme of ‘The One and the Many’, as content for a short programme which each group would go on to present and produce as part of their half-day radio experience.

I’ve previously taken part in the Free Thinking Festival as a panellist on discussion shows, as a radio reviewer, and as a poet and performer (in ‘The Verb’, 2010, and in ‘Horse’ for ‘Between the Ears’, 2011). I also have many years’ experience of writing poetry for radio. How does a ‘radio poem’ differ from one you might find in a book? And how is any poem different from a news report? These were questions I hoped to explore with the students.

Over two days I worked with Thorp Academy, Ryton (32 KS 7 students), Farringdon Community Academy, Sunderland (15 KS 8-9) and Nunnykirk Centre for Dyslexia, Northumberland (9 KS 8-9).

The Festival theme was ‘The One and the Many’, so I planned my workshop around the idea of the Sun: our one ‘special’ star among many, and a star which has many ‘faces’ in one. The session was adapted from a successful template which I’ve recently devised with scientists at Northumbria University’s NUSTEM for the project ‘Imagining the Sun’.

In my adapted version I introduced the idea of our Sun as our ‘special’ star, and asked the students to tell me what they knew about it and how they perceived it from Earth (reminding them that we must never look at the Sun directly!). I showed them a series of real photographs of the Sun’s surface and corona, taken in different wavelengths or temperatures, revealing that the Sun has many ‘secrets’ that we cannot ‘see’ with our normal senses. We watched a video of a solar flare, and discussed the science. Then we read my poem ‘Observatory’ about the interrogation of the Sun’s many faces. We looked closely at how language works in that poem.

Most importantly, we spent 20-30 minutes of each session on writing. I asked the students to contrast their own experience of the Sun from Earth with different ‘faces’ of the Sun which they had seen in the video. What might these different ‘moods’ or ‘faces’ say to each other? What questions would they, the students, ask the Sun? Each group was small enough for me to be able to support each student individually to develop their ideas and language, with particular emphasis on sounds and action words – verbs – for their radio broadcast.

Farringdon 1

Writing radio poems about the Sun, with students 


The students’ poems were fantastic. Here are a few lines from one, KS 7:

‘It’s hiding, but in plain sight:

When you see it, it is like being shown

Your greatest nightmare and your best dream.’

‘I seem quiet, but my soul is the same as yours.

Look at me: my fire bridges,

The fountains beyond your imagination…’

Thorp 12

Over the second hour, the students worked in teams to present and produce a five-minute radio ‘news-and-chat-show’ in the special Radio 3 glass pop-up studio. They worked from a script, which – in theory, at least – allowed time for them to read a line or two from some of their poems. This did not happen as much as I’d have liked, due to the time constraints of the format. But the students still came up with great programmes, some discussed a poetry slam event, and some were able to record their poems in the studio afterwards.

This was a highly successful and enjoyable project. All the students seemed to have a wonderful time, all produced excellent, thoughtful and lively poems, and all worked together well in their radio studio teams. Even if their poetry didn’t always make it into their radio programme, everyone worked hard, and every student had an enjoyable and rewarding educational experience, which I’m sure they will remember for the rest of their lives.

Thope 7Students record their poems in the BBC Radio 3 pop-up studio, Sage Gateshead.


It’s fantastic that Radio 3 is able to offer young people this kind of opportunity to write and produce their own broadcast. Radio is such a great medium for poetry. It’s also important, not just for the students, but for a national broadcaster to build such links with places and communities. I really hope that this kind of work can continue in the future.

With thanks to all the schools, the Poetry Society and BBC Radio 3 Free Thinking.