Brooke Geller · inspiration · student engagement

What’s the Keynote of the Unit?

Hurriedly making my way through the front door of the majestic Riverside Chapel on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, I glanced at my watch.  Late, I thought to myself.  Oh well, I’m sure I can still find a seat.  To my surprise, I was politely directed not to the actual main body of the chapel, but to the balcony.  Wow, a lot of people come to these TC reunions, I mentally commented.  The year was 2005, and this was my first time attending.  Quickly locating an unoccupied seat, I lowered myself into the chair.  Far down below, I spotted a podium.  Before an audience of several hundred, a small woman stepped before the microphone and began to speak.

And my life has never been the same.

You see, that small woman was Lucy Calkins, Director of the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University.  And although I do not recall Lucy’s entire keynote speech, I do remember that she laid out both a history and a vision for all of us.  In her speech, Lucy said the words, “And I realized this work was so important that I needed to devote my life to it.”  In that moment, I did the same thing; I decided to devote my life to the work of literacy.  And I’ve never looked back.

So yes, a keynote speech can be powerful.  Most of us are well aware of this fact, as we can likely recall a keynote at a graduation ceremony, a TC reunion, a conference, etc. somewhere in our past that truly spoke to us or that mattered somehow.  In the space of a few moments, powerful keynotes can stir up inspiration that has the capacity for changing the trajectory of a person’s future.  I am a living, breathing example of that notion.  So this last October, when staff developer Brooke Geller introduced the idea of providing a “keynote address” before beginning a new unit, I was intrigued.

What’s the ‘Story’ of the Unit?

Strong fiction writers always have an idea of where they want to take their readers.  Of course, these writers understand that reading is a transactional process during which readers will make of the text what they make of it, and this is a uniquely individual process.  But there’s typically a pre-planned arc to the story that is intentionally designed to evoke a sense of ‘journey completed’ by the end.  At this year’s 2017 fall TC Saturday Reunion, the wonderful Brooke Geller invited all of us in her session to view a unit of study in writing as a journey, similar to the journey of a powerful story.  She broke this down a bit for us:

Step One:  If possible, read the “Overview”  section before teaching the unit.  This small section will likely provide a few key words critical to helping us know what the unit is all about.  Each bend of the unit has a specific purpose, whether it is to organize a group of lessons around helping writers generate, draft, and revise in a specific genre or writing type; or perhaps it is to teach a specific process for living like a writer.  Whatever the purposes of the bend are, get to know them.  Jot down words that help you know what the unit is about.  What are the big ideas?  What will kids be learning to think and/or do?  What do you hope they will get better at doing as writers?

Step Two:  Once you have jotted down a list of key words and phrases that help you internalize the larger work of the unit, think about crafting a keynote speech.  In my view, effective keynote speeches usually include a few key elements: a short summarial history of where we’ve come (as a community), and an inspirational path for the future.  For example, a short keynote for the 8th grade Writing Units of Study Investigative Journalism (Heinemann, 2014) unit might sound something like this:

“Writers, you’ve come such a long way as storytellers!  In sixth grade, you honed your skills to be able to write powerful, meaningful small moment personal narratives that helped people view issues in a new way.  Then in seventh grade, you wrote realistic fiction stories that pushed readers to think differently.  So, so awesome.  And now, in eighth grade, you’re going to take both your storytelling skills and your information writing skills to a whole new level!  In this unit, we’re going to begin by learning a process for discerning the small dramas around us so that we can craft newscasts, newscasts that bring the news of what’s going on concisely to our readers.  We’re going to learn to write quickly and do it well  This will be such important work, as being able to tell a true story and tell it in a way that gets to the heart of the matter is a skill you will want to carry with you for a lifetime.  Then, a week or so from now, we’ll be changing the path of our work a bit to focus on some critical social issues that shape our lives, shifting our perspective to look beyond ourselves.  And the work you’ll be doing will stir and powerfully move readers toward caring about some common concerns we all share.  And finally, just when you think we might be done, we will extend our investigative research!  We will begin to include incredibly important and fun elements like interviews, surveys, and writing from sources. And we’ll be doing that in service of examining ways writers try to make the world a better place.  Across this unit, writers, you are all going to call on your already-strong narrative craft to tell the truth by illuminating multiple perspectives, which is so important in the day and age in which you are growing up.  Because we know it is through multiple truths that truths are constructed, right?  And why? Why do we do all of this?  Because this is what writers do!  We tell stories.  We hone our craft. And we change the world!”

I have missed the mark with this draft example, but you get the idea.

Step Three:  Deliver the keynote passionately and enthusiastically, inviting students to take this journey along with you and all of their classmates. Study the moves of effective keynote speakers or TED talks. Be dramatic! Make it inspirational!

Providing a keynote for a unit of study accomplishes two important goals:  (1)  Students know what is coming. They don’t have to wonder what the work will be or why they’re doing it.  Of course, they’ll set personal goals and chart some of their own course within the larger scope of the work; but knowing where we’re going sometimes allows us to focus more on the day-to-day.  (2) Students have an inspirational possibility to live into as writers.  It is the future that often dictates the quality of the present.  So by carving a future into words that provides inspiration, you might just change a writing life.

So, what will your keynote sound like?

13 thoughts on “What’s the Keynote of the Unit?

  1. This is genius! The simple steps you offer as a guide will help in making what appears to be a large job into a purposeful, targeted job – making it purposeful and targeted leaves room for FUN and ENERGY! Thanks so much for your wisdom in thinking and writing!


    1. Thank you for your feedback, Lisa! Happy to hear the idea resonates! I agree with you, Brooke’s tip really does have the potential to crystallize the big ideas and purpose for our units. Nice to hear from you!


  2. Lanny,
    Love the connection to your first keynote in Riverside Chapel. Such an inspiring setting for important keynotes from Lucy Calkins.

    And then the idea of a keynote for a writing unit. Also inspirational as well as so helpful to set out that vision for both teachers and students! And then to give us the “how to” as Sally said to “empower us”. I can’t wait to explore this keynote work further. THANKS!


    1. Thank you Fran (and Sally)! So glad to know you found the steps for creating a keynote as helpful! In my posts, I try to emulate the type of teaching we are all trying to promote here on this blog- that being, as teachers of writing, we understand just ‘telling’ is not teaching. We need to make the path toward the goal concrete and visible for everyone (as John Hattie says)! Thanks for you comment!


  3. Important for kids to have a vision of where they’re heading. But essential for us as teachers to distill in our own minds what the work ahead is really aiming at and to bring our best energy and enthusiasm to it. A keynote—what a great idea for accomplishing both!

    A logistical question- would this keynote happen just before a pre-assessment perhaps?


    1. Thanks for your comment, Katie! The way you describe the value of a keynote from a teacher’s point of view is powerful. My thoughts about timing around a pre-assessment would be that the keynote would come after the pre-assessment. Reason? I try to think from a kid’s perspective what it would feel like to be completely inspired about the work of a unit (from a keynote), only next to be handed a pre-assessment (which might feel like a bit of a “buzzkill”). On the other hand, if the pre-assessment were framed like, “And so before we get started, I’m dying to know what you know how to do already! This will help me plan for the unit to be the best it can be…” then it might be fine. So I see both ways as possible. Like you mentioned, it’s all about the kind of energy we bring to our teaching.


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