Mashed Potatoes Metaphor


Students think about their futures and the literature they read through a unique metaphor and activity involving mashed potatoes.


  • To inspire students to focus on their passions and creativity, rather than becoming victims of apathy or mediocrity
  • To provide a metaphor for thinking about themes such as individuality, the cult of personality, the nature of evil, etc. that they encounter in their reading in literature and about culture
  • To engage students in using creative mediums to convey a vivid picture of an experience

Class: ENG 1: Composition/Literature 1 Advanced

Introduction/Background: Vicky Gilpin has taught courses that range from high school Freshman Composition courses to university courses on writing and literature. In all of these different types of classes, she has used this activity and metaphor, “Don’t Be Mashed Potatoes” to encourage students to develop their own passions and goals rather than being malleable and bland like mashed potatoes.


For a more in depth explanation from Dr. Gilpin herself of how she explains this activity and idea to her students, see the attached file. 

  • When students enter the classroom, the instructor gives them an introductory writing activity (usually the metacognition activity, attached) along with the verbal instructions, "next time you enter this room, you must bring in an artifact that demonstrates that you played with mashed potatoes." She tells them that they may have pictures, video, create a poem, etc: they must -as young adults- play with mashed potatoes and pay close attention to the qualities and characteristics. She does not indicate the purpose, unlike most of her exercises where she explains the relevance of the activity up front.   
  • Students bring in and present their artifacts. These have ranged from poetry, to blogs, to musical numbers, to slow-motion films.
  • She then shows them the PowerPoint, attached, where she discusses the meaning of the exercise. Attached is a longer description from the instructor describing the inspirational  quotes and ideas she shares with her students. Here are some of the highlights: “The experience of playing with mashed potatoes sears a most important metaphor into my students’ brains while re-emphasizing it in my own: mashed potatoes are squishy, oozing, bland (because of course someone always tastes them), and tend to splatter when subjected to force....Consequently, a person without a path, a goal, a passion, a drive, or 'seeds of a destiny' – whatever label one gives – a person who denies his or her potential agency or proactivity is mashed potatoes: malleable, easily altered, ineffective under pressure. Apathy and anomie can only be fought by those who are not mashed potatoes, and not being mashed potatoes is more than chance.”
  • This activity creates a metaphor that lasts the whole year. As Gilpin describes, “While we are discussing, examining classic works or works from popular culture, doing more intricate activities that encourage a combination of creative and critical thinking, the metaphor, the theme, pervades: DO NOT BE MASHED POTATOES. Everything we do is to keep them from becoming mashed potatoes, no matter who challenges them, and no matter who tries to sabotage their dreams.” Throughout her classes, Dr. Gilpin creates assignents that have her high school students producing videos, papers, and projects, and her university students  networking, presenting, and publishing. This active learning embodies her message to students to be creative and active rather than passive.


Powerpoint (attached)

Mashed potatoes (students provide)

Comments from the Instructor:

  • “This is not merely an activity, but an approach that I have used for classes (depending on how it fits with the curriculum, age, campus, etc) from High School Freshman Composition courses through university genre-based courses and first-year writing courses. The prerequisites include an open mind, a willingness to be challenged, and a recognition that activities are developed to benefit students.”
  • “The mashed potatoes activity is beneficial and interesting, but the teacher must have the passion to continue its lessons with connected academic activities that weave differentiated instruction, research, credible sources, literature, informational texts, and THE STUDENTS' INTERESTS (as much as possible in the subject) the whole semester or year.”
presentation.pptx1.49 MB
metacognition paper.doc28 KB