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Npr This I Believe Essay Database

Introduce this Structure from Gretchen Bernabei's Books as a Writing Prompt:

The theme of Gretchen Bernabei's books on expository writing is the importance of teaching students writing structure that isn't formulaic. Formulaic writing? We call those essays "robot talk" in my classroom. I want my students' personal essays to not be formulaic and to definitely make use of a personal-but-respectful voice. The following simple formula from Gretchen shows a simple structure but allows for expansion.

I first introduced this visual/organization tool for this assignment by having the students recall the plots of books we read last year together; to do this, I required them to take the voice of one of last year's books' characters and plan something to say based on their memories of those novels. To illustrate, I'd say, "Remember reading Chains from last year? I want you to create a short speech in the voice of the main character (Isabel) that takes her thinking through this graphic organizer." They do. A week later we practiced with this structure again as we finished our two Civil War tomes--one fiction, the other non-fiction. In winter, as we finish The Jungle, they'll come back to this organization tool once again when I ask them to use it to write a speech as one of the characters from the novel by Upton Sinclair. Whenever possible, I try to use my writing lessons' graphic organizers as discussion tools for the books/stories/poetry you're reading.

As I re-introduce expository writing to my students, I remind them of the importance of having an organizational plan in place before beginning the writing. I explain how the tool we've been using (the same one pictured above) could also be used to help them organize their next essay assignment for me: the "This I Believe" essay assignment, in which they'll document an event--big or small--that altered the way they think about the world we live in. We practice writing a short "This I Believe" paragraph in our writer's notebooks; "Take ten minutes to write a paragraph (or two or three) that uses the graphic organizer to re-tell a true story. It doesn't have to be a huge belief. It can be a small one since this is practice."

We discuss how the organizer gives a story its structure, and then I ask, "Does it dictate how many paragraphs you'll have to use?" The answer to that question is--of course--"No!", and it's a good discussion to have. Each of the three parts in this story-planning structure can be broken into smaller parts; that middle part alone might warrant a story from a student that requires four paragraphs by itself. In expository--even in personal expositories--each paragraph should have a planned purpose. When I teach expository, my students are required to--before we draft a paper--justify the "paragraph map" they have created that will guides their essay's direction and most of its paragraph breaks..

Incorporating the Mentor Texts:

Every week in my class, we are looking at published writing of all types and forms, discussing techniques the different authors used to make the writing stand out. During the time I am introducing the techniques and graphic organizer above, I am using "This I Believe" essays from the NPR website as my "Mentor texts" for discussing quality writing techniques. The NPR website features so many free-to-access essays that your students will find worthy of discussion. I invite you to find your own at the NPR website, but below are the ones I focus on, in case you're interested; you can search the on-line database at the NPR-sponsored website to find essays about quite a few topics/themes, I imagine.

The Five "This I Believe" Essays I Make Sure We Have Time For:

Connecting to a Global Tribe by Matt Harding

I use Matt Harding's essay for mini-lessons/class discussions on:

  • punctuation skills: the author does interestings to incorporate voice through punctuation; my students like to go back and analyze for this discvoery and then participate in a discussion about why they think the author made the punctuation choices he made.
  • metaphor-building skills: we practicing make personal "tribe" and "[insert adjective] brains" metaphors (Matt talks about his "caveman brain" in the essay) after reading this essay; it's a great reminder of a poetry skill that can work in essays too!
  • 21st century skill: my kids have the power of the Internet at their fingertips, something I never had until I was much older. This essay proves that there are smart people who've figured out how to gain a "global audience" in order to shape the direction of their own life. We have a great discussion about ordinary people they follow who are making a name for themselves on the Internet, and who--thusly--are creating a something that's ultimately marketable so that one can create an on-line presence that generates income. I have future businessmen and women in my classroom; they like this discussion.

My only regret with using this essay is the name of the author's blog: "Where in the Hell is Matt?" Hell is a word not allowed by me in my Language Arts classroom, and I always apologize before showing the clip from You Tube, which is titled the same as his blog. Just want to warn you up front that there's a "Hell" you might need to address.

Be Cool to the Pizza Dude by Sarah Adams

I use Sarah Adams' essay for mini-lessons/class discussions on:

  • organization lesson: the list-approach for this essay appeals to some of my students. I make sure they notice how much story/detail is in each item on the list so that they don't simplify their own essays into short bulleted lists. I make them give a label to each of Adams' paragraphs, a label that explains the author's purpose in calling that chunk of information a "paragraph."
  • prompt-for-writer's-notebooks idea: I had a lot of students write to my prompting of "Who should people be 'cooler' to, cooler than they currently are anyway? Or whose job are you glad you don't have that you should probably be nicer/cooler to?" I had numerous students write about our school's custodians with that prompt this last year.
  • vocabulary practice: my students like the vocabulary in this essay. If you follow my work at this website, you know that I require them to collect and display four vocabulary words from their reading each week, and many find a word or two here that is worthy of their weekly collection. Bestow is a vocabulary word in this essay that can be EGOT-ted, for those of you who use my vocabulary/writing techniques and are now looking for a list of EGOTs.

Thirty Things I Believe by Tarak McClain

I use kindergartner Tarak McClain's list of 30 beliefs for mini-lessons/class discussions on:

  • idea development skills: I ask my students to discuss the following with their thinking partners: "If Tarak were to now write the story behind one of these beliefs, which three from his list do you think would make the most detailed story? Which one belief would make the most interesting story to you personally and why?"
  • listing for writer's notebooks: You'll have students who ask if their essay can just be a list like Tarak's, and I say no; I expect my kids to tell the story of the belief with specific and relevant details. If they are excited by the notion of listing things like beliefs, it might prove to be a good opportunity to review/introduce Ralph Fletcher's take on the value of making personal lists in your writer's notebook. He gives a lot of good ideas in one of my favorite mentor texts: A Writer's Notebook: Unlocking the Writer in You.
  • prompt idea: Tarak's list was originally 100 beliefs? Heck, 30 beliefs sounded like a lot for me to think of. Challenge your students to begin a "List of Personal Beliefs" in their writer's notebooks during ten or twenty minutes of Sacred Writing Time.

This is the "Awww, cute" essay from the bunch I share. You absolutely have to find time to play the essay aloud for your students. I have eighth graders, and Tarak always manages to make even my most cynical writers listen to his words carefully.

I Am Still the Greatest by Muhammad Ali

I use Muhammad Ali's essay for mini-lessons/class discussions on:

  • grammar skills: there are both good andd superb action verbs (and participial phrases) to be found this essay. First, I have students, working with a partner, highlight all the action verbs. Because I teach them the difference between transitive and intransitiveverbs as part of my vocabulary program, they then must find three of each and be prepared to share the entire verb phrases aloud with the class during an all-class review of who remembers the difference. "Thumbs up if you agree that triumphed is an intransitive verb in that verb phrase as Katie just shared."
  • writer's notebook prompt idea from this essay: "At what point do you earn the right to flaunt your ego? Why do some people act egotistically before they've earned the right? Based on the essay, would Muhammad Ali agree with your answer?"
  • 21st century skills: using this essay allows me to reaffirm my expectation that students alwayswrite about what they are passionate about because it yields better writing, and I think a choice-based writing classroom is completely a 21st century skill-friendly environment. My sports-loving kids get into this essay; that's probably not to be unexpected though. Most have heard of Muhammad Ali, but few of my 8th graders know the whole story. This is a cool way to learn about someone through an essay. After I recount his gold medal victory at the 1960 Rome Olympics and briefly share his successful career as a champion boxer, they learn about his childhood from the essay, his diagnosis with Parkinson's Disease, and they hear a very human account of him trying to control his tremors while lighting the Olympic torch in 1996's Atlanta Games. This You-Tube video shows them exactly what the tremors looked like that he is describing. We talk a lot about this athlete's mind still being strong enough to write this essay but his body failing him. To show the digression of the diseaese as it affected this athlete to your students, you can usethis additional You-Tube clipshowing him at the 2012 Olympic Ceremony. When I suggested to my athletes that they might choose Parkinson's Disease as a research topic for our upcoming expository writer's workshop in January, many of them perked up and asked, "Really?"

The Beatles Live On by Macklin Levine

I use this eighth grader's essay from the NPR website for mini-lessons/class discussions on:

  • organizational skills: my kids understand "circular writing," where a piece of writing begins and ends on a similar note. My Start & Stop Poetry lesson teaches this idea poetically, and Macklin's essay is a nice example of an essay that begins and ends similarly, but not exactly the same. I have my students compare and contrast the difference between the first and last paragraph here, asking them to decide which paragraph--the first or the last--is the better written paragraph. Good discussions ensue with this discussion.
  • writer's notebook prompt: my left-brained writers (the ones who appreciate having a structure in mind before they start writing) take a shine to penning song parodies during sacred writing time because that kind of writing gives the kids a structural rhythm (and perhaps a rhyme scheme too) to affix their new song words to. I have a lesson I do on writer's notebook song parodies, and having that in place ahead of time, allows me to play some songs and challenge certain students to create a parody of that song. If you play "Yellow Submarine" for them a few times during sacred writing time, then suggest a parody, you'll get at least one; at least, that's been my experience so far.

C'mon...Make a Teacher Model for this essay. I dare you. No, Double-dog dare you:

You should know my repetitive dogma by now: if you expect your students to write one, you better be willing to write one as well. That's a hard hurdle for some of my fellow educators to jump or climb over, and all seem to have different reasons for not being willing to do this side-by-side writing like I try to do. The most common reason for not doing it is time, I think, but you learn to make the time work for you. For example, do I sometimes recycle a paper I wrote previously and pretend it's new to me? Yes, I do. Teaching three different grade levels, I also have the time to start the writing process with them on certain assignments but not finish it, which they've never called me on; don't misunderstand, they love reading mine when I have a revised & edited paper to share on final draft day, but they understand that I have to plan three different lessons daily, teach them, and--idealistically--write new papers and writer's notebook pages alongside all of them, but that's not realistic. On the writing assignments where I write alongside them the whole way, I know for a fact they're experimenting more withthe stylistic techniques we are discussing and mini-lessoning around. Why? Because they see me incorporating it as part of my own drafting and revising process.

I love these This I Believe essays. I have no problem sharing one I wrote with them as they write their own.

I designed this lesson so that I could write a This I Believe essay alongside them once, then recycle the paper. I used that for three years, then became bored with it. This last year, I began composing a new one; I'm not to final draft form yet, but I will be there soon.

My Teacher Models for the Students

My First Essay :

  • The writer's notebook entry that inspired my rough draft
  • My typed second draft

My Second Essay:

  • My writer's notebook entry that inspired my rough draft
  • My typed second draft

Some Pre-writing Tools I Used

Despite all the models you share, you'll still have a few kids who approach this writing topic kicking and screaming. "I don't believe anything, Mr. Harrison," I actually heard this year, and my response was "I feel very bad for you if that's truly the case." It's the students who over-generalize everything that have trouble finding a belief to write about here.

Here are some pre-writing tools I incorporated to

I love these This I Believe essays. I have no problem sharing one I wrote with them as they write their own.

I designed this lesson so that I could write a This I Believe essay alongside them once, then recycle the paper. I used that for three years, then became bored with it. This last year, I began composing a new one; I'm not to final draft form yet, but I will be there soon.


An Invitation to Share Students' Personified Vocabulary Notebook Pages:

You will have students who create awesome notebook pages inspired by this activity--ones that should serve as models for future students who go through this writing activity. I hope you'll consider photographing and sharing any students' notebook page that really are inspirational. Tell your students you're going to choose the three best notebook pages and post them at WritingFix's Ning; this is a fabulous way to motivate your writers, and tell your students they could very easily have their notebook pages seen by the tens-of-thousands of teachers and writers who visit our free-to-access educational site annually.

The link below will take you to our posting page specifically set up for this lesson. And hey, I'd love to see teachers sharing their own models of this assignment too!


Nubar Alexanian

Series Host Jay Allison




Nubar Alexanian

Series Producer Dan Gediman, April 4, 2005 · This I Believe® is an exciting national project that invites you to write about the core beliefs that guide your daily life. NPR will air these personal statements from listeners each Monday on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. By inviting Americans from all walks of life to participate, series producers Dan Gediman and Jay Allison hope to create a picture of the American spirit in all its rich complexity.

This I Believe is based on a 1950s radio program of the same name, hosted by acclaimed journalist Edward R. Murrow. In creating This I Believe, Murrow said the program sought "to point to the common meeting grounds of beliefs, which is the essence of brotherhood and the floor of our civilization."

In spite of the fear of atomic warfare, increasing consumerism and loss of spiritual values, the essayists on Murrow's series expressed tremendous hope. "We hear a country moving toward more equality among the races and between genders," says Gediman. "We hear parents writing essays that are letters to their newborn children expressing the hopes and dreams they have for them. And we hear the stories of faith that guide people in their daily experiences."

Each day, millions of Americans gathered by their radios to hear compelling essays from the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Robinson, Helen Keller and Harry Truman as well as corporate leaders, cab drivers, scientists and secretaries -- anyone able to distill into a few minutes the guiding principles by which they lived. Their words brought comfort and inspiration to a country worried about the Cold War, McCarthyism and racial division.

"As in the 1950s, this is a time when belief is dividing the nation and the world," says Allison about life today. "We are not listening well, not understanding each other -- we are simply disagreeing, or worse. Working in broadcast communication, there's a responsibility to change that, to cross borders, to encourage some empathy. That possibility is what inspires me about this series."

In reviving This I Believe, Allison and Gediman say their goal is not to persuade Americans to agree on the same beliefs. Rather, they hope to encourage people to begin the much more difficult task of developing respect for beliefs different from their own.

NPR's This I Believe is independently produced by This I Believe, Inc. in Louisville, Ky., and Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Mass. Find out more about the people behind This I Believe.

Support for This I Believe is provided by Capella University, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Righteous Persons Foundation.