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Mise-en-Place: For cooking and teaching

January 8, 2015

Last weekend I heard an especially timely piece about organized living on NPR. The piece was about a chefs’ term “mise-en-place” which means “to gather and arrange the tools and ingredients needed for cooking.” Two parts of the story really stuck out to me. One was when a chef talked about the need to have everything placed strategically while doing a meal service. He said that he downloadexpected his chefs to be able to run their prep stations blindfolded, and that an important part of this was having all of their ingredients and tools placed strategically, and also the same place night after night. Another part that stood out was when a second chef discussed the time needed for preparation. He said that they often to do 6 hour of preparation for a 3 hour meal service. In essence, the piece was about how chefs use organization and preparation to create a productive and almost zen-like focus when they are doing the actual work. As an amateur cook, I appreciated this reminder about the value of preparation, especially as I get ready to continue my extended meal preparation on Sunday afternoons.

This piece was also especially timely for me as I returned to teaching after a two-week break during which I did little work (intentionally). My return was both a bit delayed and a bit different from years past. The first day of school was Monday, and I was not there. Instead I was with a family member who was having surgery. Everything went well with the procedure, which was an enormous relief. But then I had to go back to teaching on Tuesday morning under somewhat difficult circumstances. I had been away from the class for two weeks, my students just had a sub, I was running on little sleep since I traveled late on Monday night, and I was running late on Tuesday morning because my bus to school was delayed. Under those circumstances, I arrived in my room 15 minutes before students would start to show up.

And then my day was fantastic. 

My students started by discussing issues around police brutality and institutional racism (related to a school event the previous day). We then started reading Dr. Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. We read aloud as a class for a few paragraphs, and then they continued reading on their own. Students were interested in the letter. They were asking questions about what parts of the letter meant. They were making connections to the protests and civil rights issues of their time.

I know there are some teachers who can walk into a classroom with little to no plan or preparation and pull-off an interesting and inspiring lesson. I am not that person, and, to be perfectly honest, I’m a bit leery about someone who says they are. My lessons for my four classes went well on Tuesday almost exclusively because of the many hours of preparation that occurred back in December. I planned this lesson and unit in early December. I made my copies for the week before the break. Before I left for break I placed student handouts in table folders, set up my powerpoint, and put all of my papers and clipboards in their proper place so that I didn’t even have to search for them on Tuesday – I just reached for them and they were there. As far as teaching goes, it was a perfect example of mise-en-place. And it was another reminder of the value of preparation and organization that I will carry with me when that type of work just seems to take too much time. It’s nice to have the reminder that the payoff is worth it.

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