Articles for Instructors

Rhetorical Storytelling in the Classroom

Bernice Olivas


In the fall of 2019, I found myself frustrated by trying to teach a short narrative section in my rhetoric and research class. I was struggling to connect, in my own mind, the narrative unit to the rest of what I was teaching. Worse, I had completely failed to connect this short unit on storytelling to the study of rhetorical arguments and researched essays. I had been mulling over it for some time when I received an email from the writing center reminding us that we would see several scholarship applications soon. Then it clicked.



In my past life, I was a student emerging from poverty, working too hard, too long, and running from a “rough” life where abuse, tragedy, and trauma were normalized and education was a flimsy lifeline; I was a student who understood that failing meant a lifetime of “rough.” In that past life, I learned that storytelling was one of the most powerful survival tools I had. It was the tool that helped me find money, resources, information, and support.

I learned this as a Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program Scholar (The McNair Scholars Program), which is a federal TRIO Program. TRIO refers to variety of federally funded outreach and support programs that create access to higher education for underrepresented populations. The McNair Scholars Program is a two-year program that prepares students to apply to graduate programs in academic fields. We focus on writing and research as well as socialization and emotional intelligence. McNair taught me to control my own narrative so that it benefited me. Two years after graduating from the program and starting a PhD program at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I returned to Boise State in the summer as a writing consultant. After graduation I worked with the program full-time for two years.

As a McNair writing consultant, I had taught several generations of scholars to use story in the same way, starting with teaching them to write engaging, thoughtful statements of purpose that used a combination of narration and exposition to help grab their audience’s attention. I taught my scholars to be “the girl who had to stitch her own leg in a skiing accident” instead of the student who “wanted to study human anatomy since high school” to a graduate school search committee.

We discussed and demystified the inherent inequitable reality of how college is funded, explained that most of the time the search committee would be made up of well-meaning folks whose privilege made it hard for them to see past the things an academia built for white middle- and upper-class students rendered important, things they decided showed potential. I taught them that the humanity that connects all of us shares a common truth―people love a good story. Tell it right and the search committee will remember the “boy who slept in his car for two years because it was the only way he could afford to be part of the Robotics Club” despite his less than perfect GPA and GRE score. Tell it right and they will want to meet the “boy who dumpster dived to build his robot” even though his CV lacked internships and conferences. Tell it right and they want to fund “the boy who won that competition with his trash-robot.”

Why not lean into what I was good at? I would teach my students that narrative, exposition, and audience awareness can be the key to getting exactly what they want. I would use real-world, important shit―money―to show them how to read a rhetorical situation and use their growing rhetorical skills. The assignment, under all the outcomes and academic language, would be simple. The students would try to meet their purpose―getting paid―by figuring out what the audience wanted―a reason to believe that if they gave this student the scholarship, this student would do something with it, this student would finish their program; this student would win―and give it to them.

The goal of the unit would be two fold. First, I would show my students that writing is important to them, that it can have a real impact on their real world.  We would write the scholarship essay; I would show them or walk them through the process of writing for a scholarship essay. We would go through each step. We would locate SLCC’s scholarship applications, analyze the rhetorical situation, create a timeline and plan, write emails for recommendation letters, workshop the scholarship essays, and apply for the scholarship. Just as importantly, I would connect this assignment directly to learning narration and exposition.

This unit would directly connect the strategies they were learning―to tell a story with real-world consequences for the purpose of winning a scholarship, which is real in a way that the possibility of publishing or doing a reading just isn’t. A scholarship is money in the hand; it is being paid for their story. I wanted them to see that being able to tell a story rhetorically and get what they want from the audience is a marketable skill.

Would this unit be about all the higher ideals we embrace and try to pass on to our students? Would it teach habits of the mind, give them a deeper understanding of humanity, teach them to love the complex beauty of rhetoric? Nah, this unit would offer my students one of the survival skills of being a BIPOC, immigrant, refugee, working class, poor, undocumented, or first generation in academia. It would teach them how to craft a narrative about themselves that doesn’t showcase their poverty, their pain, or their trauma as the reason they deserve support. It would show them how to write a narrative that didn’t turn them into inspiration porn for the scholarship committee. Instead, they would learn to write a narrative that invited the reader to see their strength, their power, their grit. Take the boy in robotics club: his narrative didn’t focus on why he was homeless or where his parents were, instead it spent two paragraphs talking about the local auto parts dealer who saw what he was doing, offered help, equipment, and parts because that is how the people in their community supported each other.



As I developed this lesson plan, I knew I needed to focus on three things:

  1. explaining to the students how to shape a rhetorical story―that is, a story with a very specific end goal
  2. making the rhetorical situation transparent to the students
  3. teaching strategies for writing good narratives


Part 1. The Handout

I created the following handout for my students. I called this “The Everyday Writing Task” because, as students, filling out applications for funding is something they will do often. It will be a normal task for them until they graduate. Then we spent a day in class discussing the scholarships, explaining the process, and looking up where the money was coming from. We all created an account and signed in.

The Everyday Writing Task


To provide experience:
1. exploring a variety of rhetorical choices, including creative, reflective, and expressive writing
2. developing a complex, multifaceted exploration of an important everyday writing task
3. practicing critical thinking, interpreting, and extrapolating about how to write for a specific audience
Writing is a part of our day-to-day lives. As college students, you are expected to write about yourselves―that is, to narrate your own stories. The most typical example of this kind of writing is the scholarship essay or statement of purpose. In many ways, this is a strange genre that asks the writer to make a lot of complex choices. In this essay, we will complete an everyday writing task from start to finish and then reflect on the experience.
Salt Lake Community Community College has over 120 privately funded scholarships and many tuition waiver opportunities that represent over a million dollars in assistance for SLCC students each year. Scholarships are available for all students, and applications are free. Each semester, we have thousands of dollars in scholarship funding that goes un-awarded due to low or no student applications.
For this assignment we will complete this writing task from start to finish. It will require a variety of thinking and writing tasks. For example, we will analyze the rhetoric of the application to better understand what our audience is looking for, we will research the scholarships offered to better understand that audience, we will write narratives in our essays, we will work together to craft emails for letters of recommendation.


– Peer Review Draft = 50pts
– Final Draft = 100pts
– Extra Credit = 25pts if you submit the application on time


Please read the following background information BEFORE you start writing. This is the application given to all students―therefore it is also our assignment handout. Please read it carefully. SLCC Scholarships and Tuition Waivers
1. Read the document carefully.
2. Create a schedule to meet the deadline.
3. Make a list of the various tasks you need to complete.
4. Begin brainstorming your essays.
This project will include the following tasks:
– brainstorming a narrative about yourself that will help fix you in the audience’s mind
– creating a list of details that will help the audience get to know you
– asking for a recommendation letter
– drafting 4 mini essays
– peer reviewing and editing


Application meets the expectations of the scholarship program.


Part Two: Making the Rhetorical Situation Transparent

Rhetorical storytelling is a fancy way of referring to a story that is told to persuade a certain action. Among the Pueblo tribes there are teaching stories that are told the exact same way every time because the goal is for the children to memorize the story and the structure. Tribe members can start the story and have others chime in with the exact same wording, rhythm, and emphasis. We see rhetorical storytelling when politicians tell stories in a congress―they are using the story to persuade others to vote a specific way.

To teach the concept and process of rhetorical storytelling, I began by drawing the rhetorical triangle on the board and asking the students to think about who the audience was, what they wanted and how best to give it to them. Through guided discussion, we ended up with the following on the board:


– situation = scholarship opportunity
– writer’s purpose = get money via scholarship
– reader’s purpose = decide who deserves the money


What does the writer need to do?
The writer needs to be memorable. The writer needs to be honest. The writer needs to balance pathos and ethos. The writer needs to persuade the reader that they will use the money to finish college. The writer should use Standard Academic English unless they feel a different English will have a stronger impact. The writer needs to stay organized. The writer needs to answer all parts of the application. The writer needs to do everything on time.
Who is the reader? And what do we think the reader really wants?
The reader is faculty, the reader is most likely not working class, the reader is not being paid extra to do this, wants a human connection. The reader wants to be assured that if they give the scholarship, the student will finish college.
What clues does the situation give us?
There are clichés and tropes we want to avoid. We are one of many so memorable is more important that perfectly matched to the scholarship, the reader is going to be reading a lot of these, the reader wants to help but may not understand the writer’s lived experiences, this is a document where mechanics are critically important.


What should the application essay include?
– a personal narrative that connects directly to the writer’s clearly defined goals
– a personal narrative that helps the reader understand the writer’s determination
– an explicit statement of how the scholarship will help the writer finish their program


Part Three: Narrative Strategies

From here I focused on teaching different strategies for writing narrative. I provided examples of short essays that were created to persuade readers toward a certain action. We brainstormed, drafted, revised, workshopped. During this process, I used my own experience as an example and I kept asking questions about how the student was meeting the purpose of this―how does this convince the reader that you will finish your program? How will this show your reader that you have really considered your goals?

For example, one early homework assignment was this:

Brainstorming Stories

The application essay asks you to do the following:

1. Outline your academic/career goals and what made you decide to pursue these goals (150–300 words).
2. Describe three qualities you posses and how they will help you enhance your education & succeed in college (150–300 words).
3. Summarize one educational obstacle you have encountered, how you overcame it, and what you learned through that experience (150–300 words).

Please decide on three stories you might tell to help you meet these tasks. For example:

1. In my first-year college writing course I realized that a lot of smart, competent first-generation writers were struggling, and I wanted to better understand why. Throughout my academic career I have continued to be fascinated by this problem which led me to becoming a writing teacher.
2. I am curious, determined, and open to constructive criticism. For example, in graduate school I took a fiction class with a very well-known writer. At this point in my writing life, I had always been praised by my fiction professors; this one, however, was brutal. After my first story, I thought about giving up but then I made myself do the revisions she asked for and a beautiful thing happened―my story changed and grew into the story I wanted but hadn’t been able to reach. I went on to take three more classes with this professor. She gave me an A- in each of them―the lowest grades I ever received in grad school―but it was worth it.
3. When I was in first grade, I was left-handed; my parents, fearing this meant I would suffer from learning disabilities, decide to make me write with my right hand …
This is an example from a student who received $4,000 in scholarship money with her essay:

SLCC Awards and Tuition Waiver Application Essays

Q1: Outline your academic/career goals and what made you decide to pursue these goals (150–300 words).

My academic goal is to get my associate degree in science at Salt Lake Community College and then transfer to the University of Utah to complete my bachelor’s degree. My interest in science started with my brother. He is a fantastic veterinarian and always shows me things that would make me curious in learning more about it.
The second person who impacted my career goals was my biology high school teacher that showed me how biology connects everything that we know. After having two years of classes with him, I decided that I would be a researcher and a teacher.
I want to be a researcher in the biology field, related to climate change, wildlife conservation, human illnesses, or sustainability. I want to be in the research field because I want to help the planet in some way. Aiming for a career that needs to be continuously updated information- and technique-wise, I will always be learning.
My second goal in my career is to be a biology teacher. I want to teach because I will be helping people to grow and understand a subject that students fear most of the time. On top of that, I can share all the knowledge I have gained throughout my years of studying, and I hope to bring awareness to environmental issues.

Q2: Describe three qualities you possess and how they will help you enhance your education & succeed in college (150–300 words).

I would say that I am determined. When I have an objective in my mind, I will do everything I can to reach it. Determination is key to keep me studying so I can achieve my personal goals. When I was about eleven years old, I decided to try to draw, and it was a disaster as everyone when learning a new skill. I was frustrated in the beginning, but I keep practicing, drawing simple things, and failing. I never gave up, and now I can finally say that I learned how to draw.
I am an analytical person. I like to understand how things work and why they work that way. This skill is essential when researching because you must analyze each step of your experiment and conclusion. The last one is my leadership skills. I can lead a group to our goals in a way that, in the end, we reached our goal with an outstanding result. Having this ability, I could help people that were struggling with a subject, and together, we achieved a better outcome.

Q3: Summarize one educational obstacle you have encountered, how you overcame it, and what you learned through that experience (150–300 words).

English is not my first language but studying outside of my country was always a dream. Starting in SLCC, I thought that English would be the hardest part for me, that I would not be able to understand the teachers and my colleagues. However, after a summer term in SLCC, I realized that English was not a barrier to my success. My main obstacle was talking to people, talking to colleagues and teachers. I was shy, and in the first month, this trait was holding me back.
The one thing that made me realize how shyness was an obstacle and how it was preventing me from being the best that I could be was in the communication class here at SLCC. To be more specific, a project that we analyzed ourselves, and by the end of it, I could see that being shy was taking opportunities away from me. Since that day, I have been working on being a more open and talkative person, and I am improving every day. Working on that trait, I achieved better grades and made many friends.

Q4: Address any special personal or family circumstances impacting your need for financial assistance (150–300 words).

Until August of 2018, I was going to apply for a public university in Brazil, but my father was transferred, and everything changed. One of the most significant changes was that we needed to pay for college. However, we did not save any money for college or university, because in Brazil, most of them are free. We are paying rent now, which is an extra expense from what we had before. I have a younger sister that is now in high school, but soon she will be applying to university, and we have to save money for her tuition too.
After thinking about all those expenses, we are starting to realize that we will have difficulties paying my tuition. Because of that situation, I am taking precautions and applying for scholarships so I can make sure that I will be able to keep up with my studies and finish my associate degree in SLCC.



Looking back now, I realize that so much of teaching comes from drawing on our own experiences, on our strengths, and on being empathizing with our students. I was struggling because I was not connecting the assignments to any of those things. Once I stopped to think about my experience, about what I care most about, and what my students really need, I was able to create an assignment that worked for me and them. This assignment will continue to remind me that no matter what concepts or content I am teaching, if I make the effort, I can offer it to the students in a way that connects to their lives. I can show them how the things I love―reading, writing, and rhetoric―are important in real, lived-experience ways.


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Open English @ SLCC by Bernice Olivas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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