School of the Imagination

 Hello. This is Donna Bird. They’ve asked me to step in this week and take you on a visit to one of our neighbors just down the street from our office building — the urban campus of the Charles L. Dodgson School of the Imagination, named by admirers of the mathematician who authored Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The School offers a variety of programs to people of all ages who are interested in learning new ways of thinking and doing.

The Dodgson School is a private institution, handsomely endowed by a group of highly successful scientists, writers, visual and performing artists whose identities are known only to the very small permanent staff of the school. Occasional rumors suggest that the school’s endowment derives from treasure carried west across the Silk Route in the thirteenth century, but no one knows that for sure…

Most of the buildings on campus are named for people whose imagination (and eccentricity) have inspired others. For example, we have the Richard Feynmann Physics Laboratory and Observatory, the Bela Bartok Conservatory of Music, the Edward Gorey Creative Writing House and the Charles Babbage Hall of Mathematics and Computer Science. Some of the world’s greatest (not necessarily most famous) architects designed the buildings to take advantage of native materials, landscape features, and conservation practices. Well, they did allow a sense of whimsy to permeate the designs, too — for example, the courtyard in front of the Gilbert and Sullivan Theatre features a real merry-go-round, populated with mythical creatures like dragons and pushmipullyus and cameleopards.

One of the biggest attractions on campus is the Theodore S. Geisel Early Childhood Development Centre. It’s built like an open wheel, with a splendid playground at the hub and separate play/rest areas for kids of different ages in the spokes. Because so many of the people affiliated with the Dodgson School believe that the imagination is at its peak in early childhood, many of the faculty and staff compete to spend time in the Geisel Centre, observing and participating in the games and storytelling.

In addition to the urban campus, the Dodgson School owns a large farm on the other side of Oberon’s Wood, accessible by a narrow gravel road. With the participation of students and faculty from the school, the farm staff maintains livestock (a small dairy herd, some beef cattle, chickens, pigs and geese — and of course horses for riding) and grows flowers, trees, fruits and vegetables. The farm also provides a facility for conducting field tests on new crop varieties and new forms of integrated pest management. (Everything is organic, of course — none of those nasty synthetic nitrogen-based fertilizers!) The fishpond is stocked with lake trout and used for ice skating in winter. The gently rolling grain fields make a perfect location for cross-country ski trails. (Snowmobiles are not allowed!)

Most of the School’s faculty members (from day care workers to professors) receive appointments ranging in length from one to three years. They are chosen by the Inner Circle of Supporters based on reports from the field concerning their special teaching talents and their active commitment to fostering their own and others’ imaginations. Students at the school get to express their preferences in an annual meeting that is quite an event. The faculty members spend about half of their work time at the School teaching and the rest engaged in their own creative pursuits, whatever they might be. Many of them have been to the School before, either as students or as participants in or facilitators of summer workshops. Some of them live in cottages on campus, while others prefer to take apartments in the nearby neighborhoods of Samhain.

The Dodgson School of the Imagination is not Hogwarts or Miss Cackles’ Academy. People don’t come here to learn how to fly brooms or concoct potions or render themselves invisible. Depending on the composition of the resident faculty at any given time, they may study astronomy or biology or history or ancient languages and literature. This being a non-traditional educational institution, they are just as likely to study Sufi dancing, Macedonian cuisine, furniture making, plain and fancy needlework, beekeeping and rose gardening. The philosophy that guides the Dodgson experience says that everyone has an imagination, that imagination flourishes when exposed to a variety of learning experiences, and that imagination is the aspect of intelligence best able to grasp the interconnectedness among different aspects of learning.

There are no grades at the Dodgson School, in either the sense of age-segregated classes or the sense of letters marking the quality of people’s achievement in a given area. Sure, some of the classes are predominantly people of a certain age range, but if an eight-year-old is already fluent in English and Japanese, she can participate in Japanese literature classes with people old enough to be her grandparents. Students are placed in classes based on demonstrated ability. For more experiential learning situations, like building construction, they are given roles based on other important factors, such as size and strength and maturity. Classes are typically small enough so that instructors can work collaboratively with students on forming qualitative assessments of accomplishments at the end of a defined learning period.

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