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.



The Green Electric Box

The Green Electric Box


“Yes, Shelley, you are president again.” It was going to be Kelly, Annabel, or Shelley, but not me. No, I was not to be president, as I did not want to speak up. What if they did not like me? I knew I was special in that I did not want to be like everyone else, but I also knew I wanted to be liked, even at this age of 7. I always felt like I was in observation mode, stepping outside myself to examine others around me. I never really felt a part of any “group.” Being the square peg, I never seemed to fit into the round hole which everyone seemed to be a part. I could not put my finger on it, but I knew I was different in some way. I was more sensitive and affected by everything around me. The introspection I would face daily, would drive me crazy. However, little did I know that God was preparing me to be a leader and a teacher. One thing I did discover, nevertheless, is that every child has these deep insecurities, but they are covered up by bullying, snickering, gossiping, or extreme shyness.


This club that we had formed took place on a small green electric box in the town homes for which we lived. It was just the right size to fit 4 tiny bodies, sitting Indian style. Shelley would call the meeting to order and we would discuss the latest issue of “Tiger Beat.” Sean Cassidy was the heartthrob, but I had my eye on Andy Gibb. This was a never-ending controversy, but I did not want to have the same crush as everyone else. We would decide what fan club we were going to support. We finally agreed that Leif Erickson was a superior choice. Again, I did not concur, but I felt it would be fun to be a part of the “club.” This became our daily routine until we got bored with that and decided to play “Charlie’s Angels.”


Now, the most sought after “Angel” was Kelly (played by Farrah Fawcett).  Unfortunately, the loser had to be stuck being “Sabrina” played by Kate Jackson. Again, it was rare that I got to be Kelly, but the fantastic thing was that I was small, so I did not usually get stuck with Kate’s role. I just remember how cool we thought we were. This game would usually, in turn, create animosity between Shelley and Annabel. They were always fighting. I typically would try to assist in them making amends and I knew I did not want to anger friends. I always wanted to keep things peaceful. I found early on that it is impossible to please everyone and keep the peace. Conflict management was applied in my life which soon came natural since my home life was filled with chaos and conflict.


To this day, I still strive to keep the peace. I don’t have the same desires to be in the “club.”  Of course, I want to be liked and be “popular.” However, the standards I follow now are God’s standards which are not always what the masses believe. I have found that having good character is a pathway to happiness and peace of mind. As Ray Magdalene says, “Like ripples in a pond, your character radiates outward and touches the hearts of people within your sphere of influence.” What I do to live a godly life and how much I love others will determine not only my happiness, but will permeate the lives around me and create a better world. I pray I can live with this type of grace for others and for myself. The green electric box still stands today and is a constant reminder of my newfound strength, hope, and encouragement to self-inflicted “square pegs” around the world.




Skating on Thin Ice

Skating on “thin” ice


Was it gymnastics? No. Was it going to be ballet? No. My “Sunday” Dad would introduce me to tennis and basketball, but it did not catch on. With an athletic family, there must be something I would excel in. One day, my mom took me to the ice skating rink. She struck gold when she bought me a pair of pricey ice skates. It was a huge sacrifice for her due to her extremely limited income. My father would support this sport for me, but with much contention. He made it difficult for me to thoroughly enjoy it because I was reminded often of how costly my chosen sport had become.

My skates would adorn my cold feet as they came to bed with me every night. Of course, the rubber guards covered the sharp blades at all times or else mom would have banned this habit. I could put out an eye! (or a toe!) The morning sun would shine through my white wooden shutters and up I would rise to a new day of gliding through the house.


It was the day of my lesson with coach Jim and how I panted with excitement to attempt that darn axel jump. The lay back/sit/camel spins were the most exhilarating, but how I longed to land that axel with precision and ease. “If you don’t fall and get scraped up, you are not trying!”, I would hear over and over. The warmth of my leg “sweaters” would cuddle my legs and the hope of Dad or Mom watching from above would coddle my soul. I hoped they would eye my grace, but often that was not the case. I was usually floundering on the ice to make it through a day’s lesson and I would watch all my “competition” look perfect.  I’d exit the ice and grab a hot chocolate out of the vending machine to rest my weary body, but “no rest for the weary” would play in my head as I savored every drop only to go back and try again.


It was time to prepare for the ISIA competition to be held in Phoenix. If I could earn a medal in this event, Dad would perhaps let me go to California to compete in a larger event. The day was approaching and I found that all the other girls were adorning their tiny skater bodies with expensive, ornate costumes. I so wanted to fit in to the “look” of the hip skaters. I also wished I could afford the fancier, more durable skates. I was never to complain. My dear mother took her precious hard earned income and created an emerald green sequenced butterfly to be sewn on my basic green skating dress. It was beautifully made and from the heart. No, it did not fit the “look” of the rest of the girls, but I appreciated it immensely. My dad was too busy to come for the big day, but I did have my mom and grandparents there. My coach also watched with pride and expectation. The cameras were ready and music began to play. It was just me; alone on the ice with not a movement or sound to be found. Before I knew it, I had completed my program. No knees were scraped and no falling took place. I heard on the announcements, “And…the Gold medal goes to…..Stephanie Scharf!!.” I did it! My first front of all those peering eyes!!


Now it was time to head into the room for pictures. I knew that this was a moment to be proud. I think, however, my mom was more proud than me. When I first started out, it was pure enjoyment. However, sometimes I felt like I was doing this to be perfect and accomplish something great for her. But I digress. I now can laugh at my stickly figure which was two long legs butting out from my chest. My waist was non-existent as I resembled a beanpole adorned in a teeny green dress and poofy, little belly. Those pictures will always make me laugh and also to be proud. Oh Boy! Orange I come!


The part that makes me cry pierces my heart to the core. From the day I started, it was always brought to my attention how expensive my chosen sport had become. My father, who contributed to this endeavor never let me forget how hard it was for him to keep it up financially. Everything cost money. On Sundays, the only days I saw him, he would take me to the rink and watch me for a few minutes. Then he would leave and come pick me up later. He never had time to come to competitions, but I did know he was proud of me. I think I skated my heart out to please him, but I could never do enough. I also could never get



My Road Not Taken

Grassy Roads

            I have a confession to make: I never felt part of “the group” in middle school. It wasn’t until returning to my high school reunion that my classmates shared with me how much they thought I had it all together and that they had an abounding respect for me. Looking back now, I realize that the poem I had to grudgingly memorize in 8th grade, The Road Not Taken, would profoundly influence and encourage my life. Often I was faced with “two roads” and over and over again I picked the least popular way. But now, as the poem relays, “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”

Making a difference has been my battle cry since I can remember. Graduating college at 20 years old with a marketing degree, high aspirations, and a shiny new company car, I was ready to take on the world! California, here I come! The plethora of cardboard boxes which served as my faux furniture populated my apartment until I could afford a real table and chairs. It was now that I was really grown up and ready to not only make some real money, but hopefully change the world. After about one year of going from client to client and hearing, “No, thank you…..we have what we need,” I was unsure what my purpose served. That is when I headed straight to a professional career counselor.

Fast-forward about ten years. I did not quit my job, but I bided time for many unquenched years. Frustrated…empty…and truly marking time, I couldn’t understand how I was going to satisfy this yearning in my heart to turn my desire of “making a difference” into a reality. All of my friends, including me, were making tons of money, but I was miserable. This is when I knew I needed to take a different route. It was time to return to school and pursue a nagging passion for which I had been dissuaded from pursuing early on. “Why, Stephanie, would you want to go into a profession which doesn’t produce a high income?” Having the money and working countless hours on something that produced no internal rewards was leading me to a wasted life. No more time to waste. I knew if I did what I loved, the money would follow.

Teaching has proved to be the hardest job; much harder than any million-dollar producing business endeavor for which I had ever participated. However, I go home each day exhausted with a sense of satisfaction, warmth, and eternal perspective. I may not be raking in the dough as I had in my past (like the so-called “world” would desire), but I’m hopefully making more of a difference than I would pounding the pavement selling a product for which is unneeded.

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I; I took the one less travelled by. And that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost knew that a grassy road may be unpopular, but sometimes, the grassy road wants wear. I will never fully know for whom I have helped or what mark I will have in this world, but I will now never regret my choices to be a bit “different” in order to make a difference.


My Future

There are three kinds of people in this world. The first person makes things happen. The second stands by and watches things as they happen, while the third person wonders what did happen! I am in the first category. My life has been a huge picture of achievement and drive. I have pursued many goals and achieve most everything I set my mind to do. I have now, however, reached a huge apex in my life. I have just begun a new career with new hopes and dreams.

With this said, I have not given up on the other dreams I have for my life. For instance, I have been pursuing a Masters in Divinity for years now. I am still in the process of doing so and I foresee completing this goal in a couple of years. With this, I plan on starting a large ministry at my church for women. The specifics have not been set, but will be more clear as time proceeds.

I also have dreams of continuing in the educational setting. This may mean staying in the classroom and teaching, but I predict I will move on to a leadership role, be it in administration or my own business. In the meantime, I plan to inspire and encourage young minds as I am so passionate about children in this crucial age group of 11-14.

My dreams and hopes for a family have not subsided. I do plan to get married and have at least one child. I would like to be a mother and nurture and love a family of my own. This means a dog, a house, and all the trimmings! I also would love to have a vacation home in the mountains up North. This would give our family the much needed rest and recovery we need.

As for my hopes….I hope to make a difference in peoples’ lives. This means my friends, my students and my family. I hope to lead people to live a better life with more hopes and dreams of their own. This means I must be a good example and live in the light. I hope to be that person as I grow. I look forward to the future and what is in store for me.