Marrying the Narrative with the Formal Essay


Marrying the Narrative with the Formal Essay

I should be a music teacher. In one second flat, I can get EVERY single student in my class to make a harmonious “AAAH” sound with perfect pitch and tone. As an ELA middle school teacher, and understanding the stress of teaching students to write, I always get the whining when I introduce the formal “essays.” What is it about a prescribed writing piece that has students running for the cozy comfort of a story? Students’ desires have waned when they arrive to my classroom. The structured writing models coupled with the robotic sounding paragraph has creativity going out the window. By 7th grade, students seem to put aside their imaginative hats, bury their interests and sadly have less desire to read and and writing.

The Core Standards have non-fiction writing and structured essays outnumbering the experiential narratives by 8th grade and are almost non-existent by 12th. Does this have to be the case?


Grade To Persuade To Explain To Convey Experience
4 30% 35% 35%
8 35% 35% 30%
12 40% 40% 20%

Source: Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects


Perhaps the “experience” needs to be included in each genre of writing. If “70% of what we learn is through stories” and that “storytelling is essential for innovation“ (according to Professor Fels from One Thousand & One; Organizational storytelling in Australia), then we need to re-think HOW we are teaching the informational formal writing piece. We think in pictures; we don’t process things as well when they are theoretical. Marrying the narrative experience with expository or nonfiction writing captures the data and allows for better retention.

When thinking about my favorite books, they tend to be non-fiction. Authors like Malcolm Gladwell or Daniel Pink are creative research writers who dispel information disguised in narrative form. One can argue teaching the expository text with an introduction, body, and conclusion CAN be taught using stories as their main support. Make a point: Tell a story; Make a point: Tell more story. Students can get this.

One of the first “essays” I introduce to my 7th graders is a persuasive “essay” letter for which they write to a potential investor. This integrated invention project’s purpose is to improve students’ research and persuasive writing skills, as well as prepare them to be critical, innovative thinkers. First of all, they create a product which would be financially or ecologically sustainable. For example, one student created a virtual organizer whereas another made a rooftop water collection device to help with the water supply in countries where a steady water supply is scarce. One student also created a table for easy access for people in wheelchairs. Next, they research a company who may be a potential investor in their product. With the use of their persuasive writing skills and their knowledge of propaganda techniques, they write a letter seeking funding while persuading the company about their worthwhile product. Finally, they present their product and read their letter at a “Celebration of Innovation” gathering. Each audience member is given a ballot, and they rate each student on passion, persuasion, poise, and product sustainability. They start the process in Science, and by the time they come to me, they find out they’ll now be writing.

When they discover they’ll be writing a structured paragraph persuasive letter, their brains turn off and they become inanimate objects. Yes, the extinction of the 5-paragraph essay may be looming, but I’m old school in them still knowing the structure of making their point and then support it with reason. Students NEED to have this formal training to help them clarify their thinking and form cogent arguments. The “structure” of 5 paragraphs lays a foundation as does knowing the alphabet helps one learn how to read. They will have a thesis and make points, but how will their data be humanized? How will they bring it to life? This is where the narrative piece comes in. The body of this paper will be filled with paragraphs, but each paragraph needs support. What kind of support could there be? How can they capture stories in their data? The best stories are rooted in the heart of the research, from beginning to end.

I have to debunk the myths in their heads about starting at the beginning of this “essay.” I provide the students with a graphic organizer called an OREO (see Figure 1), and we fill out the THESIS first. I change the name of this to the OPINION statement. (or the “O” in OREO) (This will transform into a paragraph or their introduction, but I tell them we’ll do that at the end.) The opinion statement must be visual because this is how our brains process since we never read for raw information. There has to be a direction and purpose. We call it a thesis, but maybe when teaching the thesis statement, we need to humanize the “problem or situation” which needs  examination….something that matters….something that calls for writing.

Which thesis statement allows for ease of reading and seeing?:

“Sing-Can is a powerful garbage can that is happy when things get thrown in it.”

“Sing-Can belts out melodic tunes when one tosses his/her trash.”

The second statement has a human component and an object. It’s the classic, Subject-Action Verb-Direct Object statement, and this structure seems more comfortable for our brains to comprehend.

Next, the students fill out their “R’s” or three reasons why this is the best product. These could be called their topic sentences, but I change the name so as to not make them feel like this is a formal piece. After they do this, they focus on ONE reason. This one reason needs Explanation and Examples (The “E’s) Finally, the story part! A lawyer cannot stand in front of a jury and make a statement letting it hang. He needs to elicit emotion from the reader or audience. How can this be done? Tell a story!? Make the reason have legs. Propaganda techniques like statistics, testimonies, and bandwagon have to have a subplot undergirding the reason. So, then can now have a character and a small story to support their reason. This topic sentence of reason can be: “Sing-Can rids the earth of 30% more trash than regular trash cans. The examples and explanation needs to be a story to humanize this number. Students can spend time on this paragraph in turn enjoying the “essay” process. Once the backbone of the OREO is set up, it is up to them to spruce it up with stories to support.

Finally, the students repeat their “O” in the last paragraph and sum it up. Now they can add the bells and whistles like the Grabber (or first sentence of their Introduction) to sit on top of the Thesis or Opinion statement.

The paper writes itself, and the students stand in awe of the size of their “5 paragraph” essay which is filled with story.

Students never run out of stories. This is why I have students journal through the year with all their slices of life; they capture bits of life which can be used later for information or research. This is true support for a “research” or expository they shall write. We are marrying the two together providing us a thesis and three main points but a subplot undergirding the whole paper including characters and a directional theme.

The “experience” needs to be in each genre of writing. If our brain thinks in pictures we need to teach to the students in stories having them write in kind. Marrying the narrative with expository or nonfiction writing allows the students the resurrect their creativity and provide data which makes the reader not only retain the piece but enjoy it as well.

Works Cited:

One Thousand and One Organisational Storytelling. July 2012.



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