Sunday, February 23, 2014

"If You Build It": The virtues of learning construction skills hands-on in high school

Do more of us need to learn hands-on manual labor skills, that my own father used to preach about?
In “If You Build It”, shop teacher Matt Miller has moved from Michigan down to Bertie County, the town of Windsor, NC (on the coast plain.  He and Asian-American teacher Emily Pilloton set up Studio H, which gives high school students year-long construction projects, that go from architectural drawings to actual building.  The kids build a chicken coop, and then a farmer’s market shed for the town.

The film, by Patrick Creadon, stresses the importance of small local business to the area economy.  A farmer’s market shed encourages local production of vegetables in a town with only one grocery store.  The town is at low altitude, in a swamp, and prone to flooding and the local economy (dependent on poultry) vulnerable to when big companies pull out. 

The kids keep working on the building in the summer, and it opens in the early fall.  The school district refuses the two teachers for their time on this project.

Matt, who is quite handsome, describes his experience in Detroit, building a starter home for a homeless family, requiring only payment of utilities.  But the family fails to pay that and is evicted.  The home eventually is abandoned, like so many in Detroit, and disintegrates into ruin, especially inside.
Matt says that helping people requires more than giving them things or building things for them.  They should have their own sweat equity in what they build.
I remember “industrial arts” class in seventh grade, which was paired with science.  I was not particularly good in shop (got a C). We worked with wood, plastic, wrought iron, and copper sheets (pictures above). I recall an incident where the shop teacher had an emergency appendectomy -- that was a big deal in the 1950s.  The idea of learning "practical skills" figures into my upcoming short story "Expedition".    
The film also pays heed to architecture and design and the building of wood models.  I had a friend in my college days who was an architecture student at Princeton.  I recall that "The Fountainhead" was about a non-conformist architect (this "other" Ayn Rand novel became a movie in 1949).  A good part of the plot of "The Elephant Man" in 1980 involved making a model of a cathedral.  
The official site is here.  The distributor is Long Shot Factory.  I saw the film at Landmark E Street before a fair Saturday afternoon crowd.
“Berties county” is a perfect example of the demise of rural America.
How does this movie relate to Habitat for Humanity?

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