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Project-Based Learning Finds a Champion in New Documentary

Teaching a class for an entire year without salary seems slightly insane, but a new documentary tracks two educators who did just that in Bertie County, N.C., as they taught what you might call advanced shop class.

In "If You Build It," designers Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller come to Bertie in 2010 at the request of then-superintendent Sidney "Chip" Zullinger, in order to establish a class built around project-based learning. But soon after the couple arrived, the local school board released Zullinger and cut funding to many of his initiatives, including the one led by Pilloton and Miller, Studio H.

The teachers petitioned the board to allow the project to continue, since they had already secured grant funding for materials, and in turn agreed to go without salary for the year. They then led a group of 10 students in the construction of a town farmers market, intended to be a new hub of business. Students worked on the market and other projects over the course of the 2010-11 school year, replacing three hours of school daily.

The school board comes off as something of an enemy, reneging on the deal with Pilloton and Miller, but Zullinger has had a rocky past with school boards. He departed Denver on bad terms in 2000, and was subsequently ousted as superintendent of Manassas, Va., before landing at Bertie in 2007. He now works as director of academic services in the Houston Independent School District.

Nevertheless, the film trumpets at least this idea of Zullinger's, depicting it as a major boon for students feeling frustrated with life in the rural Bertie.

"I'm not leaving because I want to leave; I'm leaving because there's nothing to keep me. It's hard to explain," senior Cameron says. "It's not that I'm leaving, it's just that there's nothing to hold me back. There's nothing that makes me want to stay."

The movie celebrates project-based learning, although teachers who watch it might have some skepticism about scaling up, since access to thousands of dollars and able construction workers isn't easy to pull off. But director Patrick Creadon, who also directed the hit documentaries "Wordplay" and "I.O.U.S.A.," said in an interview that he doesn't expect teachers to see his film and go construct a public square.

"Obviously, our movie is not about how to build a farmers market. That's not what we set out to do," Creadon said. "There have been people like, 'Oh, can you send me the blueprints for your farmers market? I want to build one.' Well, no. The movie's about great education."

Creadon rattled off ways that teachers can use project-based learning on a budget (or even, to use those magical words, "for free"). At his fifth grade daughter's school last year, he helped organize a film festival, where children had a limited amount of time to make and edit a film, then screen it for the school. He said it's been a massive success, with 16 entries the first year.

"Anybody can do this anywhere. You do not need a grant from the Kellogg Foundation to do a kids' film festival in your auditorium," he said. "This is like, 'Hey, Sally's mom is a chef, and she's a great chef. Why doesn't she come to class after school and do a program?'"

Neither Creadon nor the film express the view that great teachers must make the kind of sacrifice the Project H teachers did. It's more that teachers can do good, creative things if they get the right support.

"The key to all these things is you need the administrators, you need the principal, you need the head of the parents' organization, you might even need the local school board to allow people to try and do these things."

The movie does, like you'd imagine, show the class to be something worth getting excited about, although it also doesn't pretend that the project will magically change the lives of everyone involved; most of the students remain in North Carolina, and Pilloton and Miller broke up a few months after filming wrapped.

You may also be introduced to the glorious activity of cornhole. Here's the trailer:

"If You Build It" debuted earlier this month in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and opens in Washington on Friday, where Creadon will be at E Street Cinema to present his film and answer questions.

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