Consider a student’s life without papers to write and tests to take. That student would be learning through visual and physical activity. This is the opportunity Emily Pilloton has devised and implemented in a rural, impoverished town in North Carolina.

Emily Pilloton

Tomorrow at 5:10 p.m.
The Michigan Theater

Last September, Pilloton and her partner Matthew Miller started a nonprofit organization called Studio H. Her vision was to create a program that would advance the lives of her students and their communities. Over the course of one year, she would teach high school students design and construction techniques. After this, they would put this skill set to the test by developing their own construction project for their community. Tomorrow, she is making an appearance in Ann Arbor to bring her ideas to the stage.

Studio H is located in North Carolina’s Bertie County, where racial issues plague the community. Pilloton emphasizes that one of the core themes in her program is having her students recognize how design can be made socially relevant.

“We use design as a way to get them excited and not to focus on the poverty, obesity and racism that is so systemic in this place,” Pilloton. “Instead, we want to provide a way to transcend that and build something for the community that isn’t about the social issues that are so intractable.”

Pilloton’s teaching method moves away from traditional forms of learning. Instead of employing a fact-based teaching system, she moves toward a critical thinking-based curriculum. Her method draws attention to creativity, experimentation and risk-taking.

“We could care less about tests,” Pilloton said. “We are not teaching to a test and we are not teaching based on quantitative performance. We want to develop the skills kids will need to think through problems for the rest of their lives.”

Even though tests are not necessarily involved, the students are highly challenged. During the fall semester, the concentration is on building essential skills. This past year, the students were assigned a small-scale architecture project where they built chicken coops for those in need of a sustainable food resource. In the spring semester, they worked on the design plan for their final project, and over the summer they became the construction crew, bringing their vision to life.

Pilloton’s project helps the teens move beyond their lives and see another perspective in the world through participating in a project that could bridge this racially divided town and benefit its community members.

“It was very important to us for our students to understand that this wasn’t just a sculpture like a piece of art that we were building,” Pilloton said. “This is something that was going to be used by our neighbors and our friends and family. This human element of architecture was so important and I think something that you don’t see in most shop classes.”

Pilloton said anyone can use his or her skills for a social purpose, but in order to make it realized one must have a passionate dedication to the cause.

“It takes a lot of bravery and ability to work outside your comfort zone, but that’s a skill that can’t be taught in a classroom or a university,” Pilloton said. “It’s a type of chutzpah, risk-taking and being brave enough to try something. You have to be unafraid of failing.”

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