Mise en Place and the Nude Classroom

There’s a concept in French cooking, and even in American restaurant culture and among American foodies, called mise en place. Francophile and chef Jill Prescott describes it thus:

If there is one idea I try to drill into my students’ minds, it is mise en place, a Frenc term that translates to “put in place,” or, as I put it, “get your mess in place.”  The point is to prepare your kitchen and your ingredients ahead of time for maximum efficiency.  Stocks can be made ahead and frozen, as can fresh tomato sauce.  IF you have prepped items on hand that are used in many different recipes, you’ll always be ready to cook.  I teach students how to set up their kitchens so that good cooking is as easy as driving a car.  Once you have learned proper cooking techniques, you can make an outstanding meal in a short time.

Replace words like “kitchen” with classroom and “cooking” with learning, and you realize that maybe we don’t do a very good job of preparing our classrooms these days.  Or at least, *I* don’t do a very good job of preparing my classroom.

For one thing, I don’t know which classroom is mine this year.

I’ve been told what classes I’ll be teaching but not where.  I’ve been told what sections I’ll be teaching, but not who is in them.  This is a bit of a disadvantage, in that I don’t quite know which room to prepare this week, or what to do with it.  But let me step back a little bit further, and assume that I’ll be teaching in the same classroom I taught in last year.  It has two corkboards in the room, and a third just outside in the hallway.  These will have to be decorated, and re-decorated, several times during the year.  So I’ll need staples, a stapler, construction paper in many colors, pushpins and thumbtacks.

Each child in my classes is supposed to maintain a writing portfolio.  Since I’m apparently expected to keep doing this with paper (no one has gotten back to me about blogging) yet, I’ll need file folders.  And, apparently, a filing cabinet, preferably one that locks, since the teacher’s desk has a broken lock, and the room is used for after-school programs I don’t run; a study hall in the evenings (that I also don’t run); and in the late afternoons as a day-care playzone.

Yes.  Our school has space issues, and desperately needs more actual rooms.  But leave that point aside for a moment, and let me come back to my main point, which is this:

  • What materials make a currently-naked classroom into a mise en place classroom?

Because that’s the essential question, really.  If I can’t answer that in the next six to eight days, then it will still be a naked classroom when students show up in the room for the first time on September 14.  And I may have to decide this question of what goes in that naked classroom sight-unseen.

I’m guessing that I’ll need paper, in several kinds, for various art projects.  And I’ll need scissors, for cutting up that paper (and they’ll need to be those silly little student shears instead of real scissors, even though they’re ninth graders and 15 years old!), and markers, and rulers, and glue, and… and…

It may be useful to consider the kitchen when thinking about your naked classroom.  For example,  spices should be close at hand to the cooking area, so that seasoning can be added throughout the heating process.  Table preparation is handled in a different place than food preparation, so it’s good to keep silverware separate from kitchen knives and mixing spoons.

So, a classroom should have different stations for different kinds of learning, just as a kitchen does. (and maybe it should have sou-chefs and sauciers and pastry-makers, but that’s another post).  Research here, drafting here, presentation assembly here, and presentation over here.  In other terms, we configure our classrooms differently depending on the lesson type we’re going to teach — setting up one way for a day with laptops, and another way when a classmate gives a presentation.

Likewise, some days we should do a little work that makes life easier down the road; in any classroom, there should be time for general reading, so that you have research ‘stock’ that can be added to other projects down the road.  You write and store away paragraphs and blog entries for rainy days, like making pasta with leftover flour and the last egg.  You try to waste nothing, by composting previous efforts and keeping a ‘kitchen-garden’ of fresh herbs — I mean, quick thoughts that can spice up other projects.

Some of the materials and tools a classroom needs are constant tools: the steel spatulas and cast-iron frying pans of education likely include staplers, extra pens and paper, and so on.  Some are imperishable consumables, like paper-clips or a world map. Some are perishables, like photocopy outline maps or book report forms, which get stale and need regular refurbishing.  The point is, when thinking about the mise en place classroom, is that the supplies get replenished.  When you tear the plastic off a package of construction paper, it’s time to put “buy construction paper” on the to-do list.

Maybe I’m taking the analogy too far, but maybe we should spend time each autumn thinking about our classroom’s mise en place, and select supplies and materials for the whole year.  There may not come a day immediately when you want to do a map project on ancient Greece, but it sure is nice to have the materials at hand to start right away.

It does become clear that a mise en place classroom can be expensive, unless you use a lot of found materials, as Reggio Emmila schools do.  It’s particularly expensive during a recession, when schools are budget-cutting, and there’s no sense of what teachers can really afford to put in their classrooms.

What do you think belongs in a mise en place classroom?

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