“If You Build It,” a new film directed by Patrick Creadon, explores what happens when teachers urge students to use the creativity that each of them possess, but which public education often tamps down. The film also looks at the not-so-subtle barriers that arise when people try to make change in a community that isn’t accustomed to it.
I looked up Bertie County, N.C., the setting for this film, and found that it sits in the poorer eastern part of that state, in a region that is close to many big cities yet contains large stretches where there’s never been much to keep people from leaving. In the film, the place appears to be the quintessential rural Southern county, with an intensely agricultural tradition, a county seat that looks to be ravaged by Wal-Mart (not to mention recurring floods), and with a conservative approach to new ideas.
The film presents two young teachers, Emily Pilloton and Matt Miller, one from Michigan, the other from California, who desire to use unorthodox methods to bring the joy of learning to high school teens. They find an unlikely champion in Bertie County’s schools superintendent, but soon after he invites them to his district, he is fired. The school board then tells Emily and Matt they have one semester to try out their strange curriculum, and no, they won’t be paid for their services.
Emily and Matt teach a course on design, specifically about putting design into practice in a way that real people can use. They don’t want to be like architects who build fantastical shapes for museums or palaces. For them, design is a tool of empowerment for the inhabitants and for the builders themselves.
The students begin by designing abstract things, just to see what happens when they take paper, cardboard, and scissors and make shapes out of nothing. The early scenes are straight out of John Dewey’s playbook. Dewey was an educator who in 1900 decried how deadly the modern education system was because it ignored the basic need for children to learn by doing. Over a century later, not much has changed in most public schools, and it still takes people who are a little cuckoo to show how wonderful learning can be.
It isn’t clear how the particular students who take the class find their way to it, but without a doubt it has a dramatic effect on some of them. There is one scene that is especially striking, although there is nothing fancy about the filmmakers’ technique. They just zoom in on the face of one of the students as he sees a chicken coop he designed become, well, a chicken coop. It’s like watching someone experiencing transcendence.
At a certain point, the students are tasked with a dramatic new assignment: design and build a structure to house the farmers' market in town. They go after their goal with much gusto, continually astounded at what they are accomplishing. They are still kids, of course, and as the project wears on, some of them start to slack off. Eventually summer arrives, and the project isn’t finished, but the kids are. They need their break, and some of them have work to do on the farm or elsewhere.
From the film’s perspective, it seems clear that the teachers have been disrespected by the school board, which doesn’t recognize the gift presented to it. While the town is grateful for the market building, there is no indication the school board ever offers any real respect to Emily and Matt. The filmmakers might have done well to consider what the situation looked like from the officials’ point of view. The officials maybe have thought,
“Sure, innovation is nice,but we haven’t got time to fool around. We have extremely limited resources—why should we give them to untested teachers looking to try out some new educational theory?”
The themes touched on here aren’t necessarily unique to a rural or small town environment. Certainly rural places have always been more skeptical than urban ones about change. If the rural place happens to be in the South, and the change is brought by someone from up North, the skepticism will be double. But there isn’t anything especially rural about the problems the film shows that plague education, and the potential for transforming it into something quite different.
(Photo courrtesy of Falco Ink. Public Relations)