Producer Neal Baer Talks America Reframed’s If You Build It [Exclusive]
What if design and critical thinking could make learning fun and dynamic? What if using the tools of design thinking (Research, Ideate, Develop, Prototype, Refine, Build)Â made high school kids who weren’t that interested in school and learning excited to go to class? When Bertie school district superintendent Dr. Chip Zullinger invited Emily Pilloton and Matthew MillerÂ to come to Bertie county it not only started a full-scale community restoration in the poorest county of rural North Carolina, but changed the lives of 10 teenagers in the process.
I had the opportunity to speak exclusively to Neal Baer last week about how he became involved with If You Build It by Patrick Creadon, why an innovative approach to teaching like this is so important and what he hopes people will take away from this film.
TV GOODNESS: You’re so wellÂ known for the dramas you do like Under the Dome and Law & Order: SVU. What drew you to this project?
Neal Baer: “I read a book that Emily Pilloton wrote called Design Revolution: 100 Products That Empower People.Â I was so taken with it, I wanted to meet her so I Facebook friended her, we met and she was so compelling. She was living in San Francisco then and she was telling me she was moving to North Carolina to teach kids design. So I thought, â€˜Wow. This would make an incredibly interesting movie.'”
TV GOODNESS: When did you decide this would make a good subject for a documentary and how did you go about getting the money and putting everything in place?
Neal: “We met with Emily a couple of times, my partners Patrick Creadon and Christine Oâ€™Malley,Â and we just found her so passionate. You always need a very charismatic character when youâ€™re doing documentaries. We just knew we had the passion, the charisma, the drive, the caring combination that would make a great subject for a documentary film. So we started raising money from all these different sources one goes to when making a documentary:Â Good Pitch, which is an incredible organization with Britdoc where you go and pitch to funders. We did that in San Francisco a couple of years ago; The Sundance Lab, The MacArthur Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, The Kendeda Fund and The Wyncote Foundation.Â There were so many different partners that supported us. It was really terrific.”
TV GOODNESS: I thought Emily was great and I really liked how she was inspired to come to Bertie county because of Dr. Zullinger, Superintendent of the Bertie School District. Once she was there though, he had to resign pretty quickly. How did that figure in to the filming?
Neal: “When he was fired, that was early on and we thought, â€˜Uh oh. We may not have a film. They may not let us do it.â€™ So we just followed them. Thatâ€™s what documentary filmmakers have to do. You have to follow the story and the story takes you down a road you most often never expect. You have to be open to that.
It turns out that the school board allowed them to say they werenâ€™t paid and they were so dedicated, Emily and Matt, that we therefore had aÂ show.”
TV GOODNESS: It was interesting that the school district had a substantial budget, but couldnâ€™t seem to find $80K for these two teachers. I was shocked.
Neal: “Yeah. That’s the unfortunate story of eductionÂ in our country. People who are innovative and dynamic often are feared and that was another real element of our show that we wanted to show. These kids were taking classes online, even PE, except for Matt and Emilyâ€™s course.”
TV GOODNESS: I was surprised by how many courses they were taking online. It didnâ€™t seem like the kids were learning much from those classes.
Neal: “Correct. Itâ€™s a real problem, isnâ€™t it? Itâ€™s terrible. The movie is about many things including the demise of rural america, lack of access to fresh fruit and vegetables, obesity, unemployment and, of course, dynamic, innovative ways of teaching using design thinking versus online learning now.”
TV GOODNESS: I liked getting to know these kids. At first, we can tell theyâ€™re wondering what theyâ€™ve gotten themselves into. But by the end, to watch these kids build something for their community was pretty amazing.
Neal: “We loved working with them. They were amazing kids. Many of them were the first in their families to go to school, to college after this, using that skill set.Â So we were very happy about that. We wanted to show the positive impact Matt and Emily had to these students.”
TV GOODNESS: I felt like they were making such a difference in Bertie county.Â Itâ€™s kind of heartbreaking that Matt and Emily didnâ€™t get to stick around for as long as they wouldâ€™ve liked.
TV GOODNESS: Theyâ€™re doing this again in Berkley, CA. It seems like that community understands what Emily and Matt areÂ doing and is really supportive. Hopefully weâ€™ll see more out of them.
Neal: “I think you will. And weâ€™re very grateful to PBS for airing the show on June 2nd.”
TV GOODNESS: Actually, letâ€™s talk about that. How did PBS come into the picture?
Neal: “Pat and Christine have done a number of very well known documentaries: I.O.U.S.A. and Wordplay that have played on television and in theaters. Christine worked with PBS to find the right venue for it and get it on, which was really great.”
TV GOODNESS: In terms of this documentary, who do you think would get the most out of watching it and what do you want them to take away from watching it?
Neal: “I think it speaks to so many issues that our countryâ€™s facing today. We want people to see, as I said, the demise of rural america, lack of employment opportunities in rural america, the obesity epidemic, lack of access to fresh fruits and vegetables, uninspired [curriculum] in schools.
We want the audience to see that thereâ€™s an approach called design thinking, where together you draw on all the disciplines to solve problems. Itâ€™s not just about rote learning of math or historical facts. The kids drew on a compendium of topics. They looked at historical architectural precedents. They studied Buckminster Fuller and they learned about his influence in architecture. They certainly had to use trigonometry and geometry. They looked up social issues facing their community in order to decide what kind of design to undertake that would help their community. As you see in the film, itâ€™s a very dynamic way of learning that we fully support.”
TV GOODNESS: In todayâ€™s society I feel like so manyÂ kids might get overlooked because they donâ€™t learn the way weâ€™re used to teaching them.
TV GOODNESS: It was really nice to see this approach by Matt and Emily, really engaging these kids and inspiring them to give back to their community and how that helps other businesses come in. Can you talk about that?
Neal: “Yes, yes. Thatâ€™s absolutely why we so endorseÂ design thinking, because it takes a look at problems. Emily goes through the steps that involve doing research, talking to members of the community, laying your ideas out, designing and then redesigning until you come up with a viable solution. Itâ€™s a very interactive, dynamic, collaborative process that draws on multiple disciplines. It seems to me a wonderful way to teach and those students lit up in ways they never had before. Itâ€™s brainy shop class.” [Laughs.]
Edited for space and content.
If You Build It synopsis:
Follow designers-educators-activists Emily Pilloton and Matthew Miller to Bertie County, the poorest in North Carolina. They work doggedly to persuade a school board to invest in their goal of offering a compelling and hopeful vision for a new kind of classroom in which students learn how to use the tools of design to build their own futures.
If You Build It premieres Tuesday, June 2nd at 8/7c on PBS.
This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.
Catching Up with Ted Lasso and Previewing Season 2
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] The not so dirty little secret about how I approach a new series is that I sometimes make a call based on the headspace I’m in at the time. It’s been a minute since I’ve picked up a show after the first season and then binge…
Interview: Henri Esteve on Grown-ish Season 3
An interview with Henri Esteve, who plays Javi on Freeform’s Grown-ish. He talks about his season three experience.
For All Mankind Season 2: Talking with Wrenn Schmidt, Krys Marshall, Jodi Balfour, and Sonya Walger [Exclusive]
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] One of the hooks of For All Mankind is that it’s very much a story about the women of NASA. In Season 2, we explore the journeys of the women in the program, either through their own service or through their family affiliations. Four of those…
Rosy McEwen Talks The Alienist: Angel of Darkness Season Finale [Exclusive]
[Warning: Spoilers for the season finale episodes.] How’s everyone after that finale? I will freely admit I got a little misty in episode eight as John told Sara why he loved her, and later that he wanted her despite what he might forfeit, and then at the end when he…
Rosy McEwen Talks The Alienist: Angel of Darkness [Exclusive]
Hands down, one of the best surprises of The Alienist: Angel of Darkness is that the serial killer this season has been front and center alongside the cast as a fully-formed character. We’ve watched Libby Hatch devolve from a prim, mild-mannered nurse to a woman in a rage hell-bent on…
The Alienist: Angel of Darkness Relationship Recap: John and Sara
[Warning: Spoilers for “Belly of the Beast” and “Memento Mori”] If you’ve read me for a while (thank you!), you know two things — I lean way, way in on the characters I adore and I loathe love geometry arcs. So, I’m torn about where we are and where we…
Louriza Tronco Talks The Order Season 2 [Exclusive]
[Warning: Spoilers ahead for Season 2.] The Order’s second season is dark yet delightful entertainment on many levels, and one of its biggest sources of joy and snark is the sassy Gabrielle Dupres. Last season, she was assertive and deadly and fairly annoyed with the world. This season, she’s been…
Previewing Netflix’s Virgin River
[Warning: General spoilers ahead.] Full disclosure: I have a Netflix account for my Mom, but I’m not a regular viewer. If I get a heads up on something, I’ll go look for it, but I don’t have a wander across its offerings, which, as I understand it, is how most…
Final Thoughts From the Killjoys Team [Exclusive]
This is the day of the week I’d normally hit you up with a Killjoys preview, but now that we’ve put the series to bed and released Team Awesome Force into the wild, I have one more treat for you–some final thoughts excerpted from my conversations with the Killjoys folks….
Michelle Lovretta Talks Wrapping Up Killjoys [Exclusive]
[Warning: Spoilers for the series finale.] To quote Miss Jackson, “That’s the end?” Yes, friends, it is. And like I promised you, everything would be, was, and is alright. I went to the Killjoys source, series creator Michelle Lovretta, who wrote the last episode, to break down that delicious finale….
What They Said: Three Revealing Conversations from Survivor’s Remorse “Closure”
WARNING: Spoilers for Survivor’s Remorse “Closure” The latest episode of Starz’s Survivor’s Remorse featured conversations that showed characters really digging deep into their thoughts, emotions and motivations.
Two Takes: The Catch “The Knock-Off”
Who can you trust? If this episode of The Catch was any indication, the answer is just about nobody. Betrayal was running rampant as Felicity (Shivani Ghai) arose from the dead to seduce-con Margot, Gretchen (Maria Thayer, Gotham, The Mindy Project) played gold-hearted Alice 2.0 before swindling Ethan, Tessa jumped…
What They Said: Top 3 Quotable Moments from Preacher “El Valero”
Both Quincannon and Jesse refuse to give up on what they each think is rightfully theirs. While Jesse is struggling to face the consequences of his actions, Quincannon has laid his past demons to rest and is hellbent on moving forward and putting Annville on the map again. Despite a…
What They Said: Favorite Quotes from Supergirl “Worlds Finest”
Oh, Supergirl. That ending was cold. But I can’t hate on you because the latest episode has quickly become one of my favorites.
What They Said: Top 4 Quotable Moments from Black Sails “XXIII”
The dialogue in “XXIII” is phenomenal. It’s always a fun ride when Black Sails carries its viewers along without giving them the chance to catch their breath. When an episode moves at this unforgiving pace, there is no chance for a breather nor is there a respite from the information…
What Lucifer Said: Favorite quotes from Supernatural “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
Supernatural episodes are almost always funny but thanks to the dialogue and a certain man speaking said dialogue, I laughed a lot during “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” You know, when I wasn’t busy fearing for Sam’s life or wondering what in the world was going on with Dean and…
What They Said: The Flash, “Legends Of Today” and Arrow, “Legends Of Yesterday”
Two nights of Arrow +Â The Flash = what more could we ask for?! I don’t know what it is about blending these shows, but I canâ€™t help but feel that every time they come together, they somehow become greater than the sum of their parts. And thatâ€™s saying a lot…
What they Said: Top 4 Quotable Moments from Graceland “Little Bo Bleep”
Shoot outs. Fake outs. And long-awaited revelations. “Little Bo Bleep” was a jam-packed episode that wrapped up some loose ends and totally frayed others. Â It finally gave us one Sarkissian in jail and pulled back the curtain on Briggs’ master plan, but it also set up Jakes for a world…
What They Said: Favorite Quotes from Poldark “Part 4”
â€œWhat have I told you, I don’t require my wife to crochet and sip tea, but I do require her to remember she’s not a beast of burden.â€ No, Iâ€™m not talking about The Rolling Stones! I have to admit though, just for a second, the lyrics popped into my…
3 Moments of Goodness from Brooklyn Nine-Nine “Johnny and Dora”
The most satisfying part of this season’s finale has to the Jake and Amy kiss. Well, they kiss three times but the last one is the best one — and it means something. The Charles and Rosa dynamic was also great. I love how she’s convinced he doesn’t know anything…