Bob Ward
Aspen Journalism

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February 15, 2014
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Woodshop for the modern era

At the beginning of “If You Build It,” a documentary that’s screening at the Wheeler Opera House this evening, one of the documentary’s main protagonists asks, “What if you could bring back shop class but this time orient the projects around things that the community needed?”

Think about it — a high school woodshop class, but instead of making the usual pencil boxes or cutting boards, kids design and construct an actual building that, when finished, contributes to the entire community.

“If You Build It” is the real-life story of two teacher/architects who move to rural North Carolina aiming to use vocational education to reinvigorate a struggling community. Or, to put it another way, the teachers — Matthew Miller and Emily Pilloton — offer an innovative, hands-on curriculum that fosters a broad range of skills and empowers kids to make a difference.

“We are exercising the mind just as much as we’re physically working the hand,” Miller explains in the film. “It’s a deeper connection that I don’t think we talk about enough.”

From Patrick Creadon, director of “Wordplay” and “I.O.U.S.A.,” “If You Build It” is about architecture and design but will interest virtually anyone who cares about kids and education. The high schoolers in the film start out skeptical about Miller and Pilloton’s program, but despite numerous setbacks, the kids end up enjoying a truly transformative experience.

Although he is one of the main characters, Miller said the film surprised and moved him in ways that he didn’t expect.

“Being with those kids every day, I lost track of their growth, the overall arc of their growth,” said Miller, who now lives and works in the Roaring Fork Valley. “It wasn’t till I saw the movie and rewound to Day One, Week One, that I remembered how green they were.”

The film is set in Bertie County, N.C., a depressed, rural area with a broken public school system. The school board has recently hired a visionary superintendent to guide the district out of the doldrums, and one of his bold strokes is to bring Miller and Pilloton’s Studio H program to the district. But the program is hardly off the ground before the superintendent is forced out and Miller and Pilloton are placed on the defensive.

Less than 15 minutes into the story, the dysfunctional system has disrupted the teachers’ plans already. And though they’re conditioned to roll with the punches, the kids are already cynical. One young man offers this remark: “I mean, school? I hate it. My dad hated it. My granddaddy hated it. I’m carrying on a tradition.”

As Studio H gets rolling, however, the kids design and build their own wildly colorful “cornhole” sets — wooden boards for a backyard bean-bag toss. By selling the sets to the public, they raise $1,500 to buy materials for their second project: designing and building authentic, aesthetic chicken coops with names like Chick-topia and Coopus Maximus.

Gradually, the students begin to trust their teachers/mentors and to take genuine pride in their work. In the end, the group pulls together to create, from the ground up, a new civic building in cooperation with the town of Windsor, the county seat. There are more bumps along the way, but the power of Miller and Pilloton’s vision becomes clear — especially in contrast to the stale online classes the students would be taking otherwise.

“In order to do the things we do, it requires social sciences, anthropology, history and math,” Miller said. “But really it’s trying to manifest all of that in something very tangible and very real that has an outcome.”

Miller will be on hand after the Wheeler screening to speak and answer questions. He is now teaching six similar classes to about 120 students at Glenwood Springs and Roaring Fork high schools. Through a collaboration among the Roaring Fork School District, the nonprofit Houses for Higher Education and the Manaus Fund, supporters are attempting to fund Miller’s (CO)Studio — the Studio H concept, transplanted in Colorado — for the entire 2013-14 school year. Among the building projects underway are furniture pieces for public parks and a concession stand for the Glenwood Springs High School football field.

For more information on the film or the ongoing local project, visit www.co studio.org or www.housesforhigher education.org.


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The Aspen Times Updated Feb 17, 2014 01:17PM Published Feb 15, 2014 08:54PM Copyright 2014 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.