The mouse packs the cheese

As a writer, I deal in disorientation. It’s enormous fun to push characters out of comfort zones and watch them get disoriented like fish at the bottom of a waterfall. In life, though, disorientation is… disorienting…

The upshot here is that in our lives we get to (have to?) sometimes experience moments that dump us over the waterfall and disorient us so fully that we can’t actually tell which direction is up. The only solution is to stop fighting the current, stop trying to “swim”, to let go, and to allow the current to pull us down stream; “up” will become apparent.

This week I experienced one of the most powerful, disorienting moments in teaching I have experienced in recent memory. Sitting in a circle with my learners, listening to Saa’kokoto tell the story of a wee mouse who travelled across the prairie toward the mountains, interacting with many animals and exchanging gifts with them. His first question: what did the mouse pack for lunch? Cheese! They shouted, pleased to get the answer. “Mice don’t eat cheese,” my inner voice thought, “but ok…”

Then he noted that the animal saw tracks in the snow… “What animal was it?” he asked and paused for them to fill in the space: “Cheeta?” “Bird?” They guessed. “Wolf,” he finally filled in the blank for them. They were unable to name an animal native to the region that might have left its tracks for the mouse to find. Upon reflection, I wondered how much of their guessing was related to disconnection from their immediate environment. This crew of brilliant, creative, risk-taking students is situated in stories that come from books, and movies, and video games.

The mouse packs the cheese, indeed… where does this teaching come from? It’s my own first instinct, too. Mice eat cheese. But wait… really? Cartoons teach us mice eat cheese… Experience teaches me mice grow fat on the grain spilled outside of farm-yard bins. And what before that? What do mice actually eat? Saa’kokoto said in our session: names matter. Place matters. Stories matter. Provenance matters. Connection matters.

He tells us that if you are gifted a story you have the obligation to tell it. Stories teach.

I see it in my own children at home: the need to be constantly entertained, the discomfort with boredom and ambiguity. But these are powerful teachers and we ignore them at our extreme peril.

Let’s commit to getting learners outside and situated in their environments. This, for me, is one of the most important issues in education. Knowing how where you are impacts who you are? This most of all. Learners who know their immediate environment are invested in caring for it. This may be Sunday morning pressing in on me, but I feel like there is no learning more urgent than this right now. We have the opportunity to connect our learners back to their senses and back to their environment. Let’s not lose this chance.

This disorientation strikes me as I spent a week of academic work on embodied learning and digitally augmenting experiences to allow students to physically interact with learning objects but I deeply question the role of digital augmentation in situated learning experiences. There is no greater gift we can give our learners than the ability to experience with all of their senses integrated and the silent “grey space” where real wonders and real inquiry take root.



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