INTRODUCTION:  I am an Associate Professor in the English Division and our college’s former Puente Project writing instructor.  The Puente Project is a California based program designed to increase student retention and transfer to four-year institutions.  The project combines writing, counseling/guidance and community mentoring components with an emphasis on the Mexican-American experience in California.  

Part of our on-going training with the Puente Project was a writing seminar held at the University of California at Berkeley.  It was there that I came upon this exercise.  Unfortunately, I no longer remember the gifted instructor who shared this piece with us, but I want at least to give her this roundabout credit for a job well done.

Although the exercise is designed for a developmental writing course, it would work equally as well in a student success course, guidance course, or any class where issues of self-awareness and self-identity are explored. The exercise takes about 50 minutes.


  • to create an essay topic/writing prompt
  • to stress the importance of details in good writing
  • to review metaphors as descriptive tools
  • to introduce group/peer revision
  • to explore concepts of self-awareness and identity


  • The Handout (appended below)
  • Paper for writing
  • Pen/pencils
  • Black/white board and chalk/dry pens (or overhead)


1. Pass out The Handout for the exercise.

2. Read each set of descriptions below and ask the students to choose which of the following words in each pair best describes them and write it down on The Handout sheet.  Inform them that, although you understand that they may be “somewhere in between” these terms, for the sake of this exercise they must select one of the words.  I would advise that you write the words on the board to relieve any issues of spelling anxiety they may have.  Ask, “Are you…?” (Choose 3 of the following):

  1. outgoing or shy
  2. political or non-political
  3. organized or disorganized
  4. quiet or loud
  5. practical or impractical
  6. cautious or a risk-taker

3. Now tell them to do the same thing for the items below.  Again, they are to select only one word or phrase from each pair, and you should probably use the board to help them visualize the terms.  Ask, “Are you…?”: (Choose 6 of the following):

  1. an open window or a closed door
  2. a searchlight or a candle
  3. a kite string or a laundry line
  4. a lake or a river
  5. a computer or a typewriter
  6. the tortoise or the hare
  7. a sleeping cat or a barking dog
  8. a coffee mug or a glass of wine
  9. a sandy beach or rocky mountain trail
  10. a key or a lock
  11. stepping stone or a ladder
  12. a spring flower or a pine tree

(Again, vary these to your liking.)

4. Now tell them that answers to the first question are examples of “adjectives,” and answers to the second question are examples of “metaphors.”  In the next space, ask them to write their own definition of a “metaphor” based on what they perceive as the difference between the two groups.

5. Have volunteers read their definitions out loud, and, using the board or overhead, work them into a useable definition for a “metaphor.”

6. Next ask the class to select an “object” (a bird, river, car, etc.)  that best represents or describes who they are and write it on The Handout sheet.

7. Ask them to take out a sheet of paper and write/brainstorm for 5 minutes, describing themselves as if they were the object.  Time the class and stop them after 5 minutes, regardless of where they are in their writing/brainstorming process.

8. Model the writing for the class by either doing the assignment with the class and reading your own response, or have a prepared piece ready and read it out loud.

9. When you’ve finished reading your piece, invite the class to ask you 3 or 4 questions about your “object.”  For example, if you chose to be a book: “Are you in a library?” “Are you a paperback or a hardcover?” “What is your title?”  “Who wrote you?” etc.

10. This next step is very important. Do NOT verbally answer the questions asked you (in #9).  Instead, simply number the questions and write each one down as asked in the space after your writing. 

11. Thank the class for their questions and form it into groups, roughly 5-6 students per group.

12.  Starting with the student who will have the next birthday and working clockwise, have each writer read his/her piece to the group.  Each member of the group should then ask the writer a question about his/her object.  Again, the writer should NOT verbally respond to the questions but, instead, number and record the questions onto his/her sheet.

13. When all the groups have finished reading and questioning the pieces, break up the groups and have the writers individually continue developing their pieces.  Tell them to consider using the questions that they were asked if they find themselves “stuck” writing more.  Assure them, however, that they need not use all (or any) of the questions, but to consider them as starting-off places, as these may be the “details” that the essay needs to get its point across to the reader.

14.  Depending on your purpose (and time allotment), either give the class more time to develop their paper in class or have the writing finished at home.

15. Collect and review the finished papers (or use more group revision).


The “Metaphor Paper” has been one of the most successful exercises I have ever had, especially in our developmental composition courses.  It’s creative and surprisingly non-threatening as a first writing assignment.

Given the “mask” of the metaphor, students are more open with their writing and willing to dive deep into the topic.  The idea that they do not verbally answer the group’s questions is also an eye-opener.  By not “talking” out their metaphor, the students are more directed to use writing and language to express their ideas.  What results are longer and more detailed pieces.  Metaphor birds see “buildings like Monopoly pieces” as they fly overhead.  Quiet lakes “reveal only their still surface.”

The paper also gives me a good insight into my class.  I find out who thinks they are “race cars” and who the “clouds” are.  The assignment also allows them room to be creative.

What I also find is that what I appear to “see” is not always what is happening in my own classroom.  The “quiet” student in the corner, for example, may see himself as a “lion.” For some reason, I also seem to get more than my share of young, female “eagles.”

The strongest evidence I can share happened a few years ago.  A rather shy, very soft- spoken young man wrote about being “a wonderful gift in an ugly wrapping.”  It broke my heart, but it also helped me to focus on his needs in the class a bit more.  I made sure that he was in supportive revision groups and let him know that I thought his writing was rather effective (which it was!).  By the end of the semester, I sensed from his behavior and writing that he was well on his way out of the plain paper wrapping he so dreaded.

One of the remarkable things about doing this assignment with the Puente Project is that the writing instructor gets to work side-by-side with a counselor.  Often we were both in the classroom.  With this amazing setup, the Puente counselor and I were able to get a wonderful insight into how our students felt about themselves, how they saw themselves and how they thought others saw them.

The results were not all so emotional, however.  I still get my fill of “sports cars” with “sleek engines” and, of course, “lots of chrome.”  Animals are big as well.  But when you get that paper about being “a reflection,” or the one about being “the moon,” you soon remember what fun teaching writing can be.


In my classes I try to model the assignments whenever I can.  I remember once being evaluated by the English Division during such a modeling session.  The evaluator thought I was “very brave” to be reading my stuff to the class, but I’ve never seen it this way.  Instead, I am constantly reminded about the pressure my own writing assignments puts on the students themselves.  I can feel it when I am reading, and I can really feel it when they ask me questions during this assignment: “Are you a piece of fiction or non-fiction?”  “Who wrote you?” And when asked, “Which part of the library would I find you?” I’m really glad I don’t have to answer out loud.

Another lesson I’ve learned from this assignment is to let the students freely select and explore their metaphor “object.”  When I first started doing this assignment, I’d think to myself, “Oh God, not another ‘tiger paper.’”  But as that tiger paper got going, and as that student got into his striped skin, I soon realized that this metaphor exercise was about “their personas,” and it had very little to do with me.  “What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?”


















–Joseph Sierra, Faculty, English, Pasadena City College, CA

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