Now, I see the narrative essay for what it is: a valuable bridge between where my students are and where they need to be. Especially with my remedial students, they need to practice writing in a more organized, thoughtful, and coherent essay without worrying about doing research. They tend to see essays as being too prescriptive, too limiting, while a story offers them the opportunity to be creative. They get to be more creative, and I get them to follow some guidelines that bridge into "real" essay writing.
Here are some of the other advantages of the narrative essay:
1) Brevity. Typically, a story can go on and on and on and on. The narrative essay can easily be limited to 500 to 750 words, and the whole idea of making sure your story has a point or message is powerful tool to get them to reign in their tangents, asides, and repetition. Keep it short and simple, stick to what matters, and make your point.
2) Breaking "Bad" Habits. I have voiced my displeasure at the reliance on the five-paragraph essay, so relentlessly taught all through junior high and high school. You can't tell a good story, with a clear purpose or not, in the form of a five-paragraph essay. Students have to come up with new ways to introduce their ideas, new ways to progress and build on those ideas, and new ways to conclude without relying on repeating their thesis statement.
3) Show, don't tell. You may tell a story, but the best stories paint a picture with words. Students, because of the requirements of a good narrative, can't simply "tell" the readers what the point of the story is. They have to find a way to create characters and setting that come alive, while communicating their point.
4) Confidence. Every student has a story (heck, many stories) that they want to tell. On twitter today, someone I'm following wrote: "People who plagiarize weren't told enough when they were younger, "Your ideas and writing are great!!!" Hence, they steal." I had never thought of it that way. Most of my remedial students have been told that they aren't good writers, not to mention that they aren't the smartest, either. Part of the challenge is just getting the kids to feel confident about their writing and ideas. They know their stories and we can work together to tell it well.
5) Adaptability. I tell my students that they will probably never write another narrative essay in university. But being able to adapt their writing and ideas for different audiences? That's a skill that will serve them well long after they've graduated. A narrative essay is really wonderful because it more naturally has an audience beyond just the teacher. Students need to think about who they are and will be writing for outside of their professors.
Once they've built up their confidence, seen the value of having some rules or guidelines that they need to follow, and begun to think beyond the five-paragraph essay, my students are more willing and more able to learn about and write more traditional college essays. I'm glad somewhere along the way I was "forced" to teach the narrative essay. My students are the ultimate benefactors.