Landing in Helsinki, Finland at 4 a.m. – after a 10-hour flight – and then having to be at work from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. was one of the hardest work days Haliburton native Justin Van Lieshout, has ever had.
Van Lieshout is working on a documentary titled One Simple Shift for 519 Films out of Cambridge, ON.
The film is about educational reform, featuring three American schools that have adopted a different approach for high school students. One of the schools is essentially a travelling boarding school that has already taken Van Lieshout around the world. However, it isn’t all glamour, he said.
“The reality is that I work like mad. My job is hard to describe; I do any and everything that needs to be done, all over the world. From logistics, to camera work, to set design and location scouting.”
It all came about last summer.
“I got laid off from my last job because the production I was working on was not getting renewed for another season and so I was just living my miserable little life in the city super-unemployed,” Van Lieshout said with a chuckle during a recent interview while home for the holidays.
However, he was looking for work when he came upon 519 films. They were advertising for an intern, a posting that changed to international coordinator. By the time he got the job and started working, his title was field producer.
In addition to filming people from the three schools; they’ve also captured world leaders, including Richard Branson and the Fininish minister of education “and just some really cool people like that who can weigh in on what high school should be trying to produce,” he explained.
He added it was quite surreal making a cup of tea for Branson. Other interviewees may include Margaret Atwood, Michelle Obama, Jane Goodall and Ron Howard.
The first school is 3DE (Three Dimensional Education) in Atlanta. Van Lieshout explained, “it’s basically like having kids do co-op on steroids.” He said the school is partnered with Atlanta businesses. Kids basically have jobs. One student they’re filming is doing a co-op with KPMG, a business consulting firm. He’s working on a case study and if the work is good enough, KPMG will use it. “By the time you graduate, you know your strengths, weaknesses and interests better,” Van Lieshout said of the program. He said they’re predominantly a low-income school that still has to meet state benchmarks.
The second school is Avalon School in Minnesota. He said their focus is project-based learning with no classrooms other than a science lab. He described it as the most “hippy-dippy.” It’s also a step up on the socio-economic scale.
Students choose things they are passionate about and earn credits in traditional subjects. For example, someone interested in flowers can create artworks of flowers for art credits or study their biology for science. He said the role of teachers is making connections in the community so the kids have resources. He added there is no administration and every teacher is on the same level, making decisions as a collective. “It’s super cool. It’s in a warehouse. It does not look like a school in any sense,” Van Lieshout said.
The third school is THINK Global School based out of New York. It’s the travelling boarding school. “If you had all the money in the world to design an education system, this is what would come out,” Van Lieshout said.
He likes what he is learning, and says, “I would love to see small changes implemented in our local schools. The solution is as simple as asking students what they need, and giving teachers the power to give it to them.”
The job has taken him across the US, to Finland, England, Wales, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Australia to date. He said the plan is to finish filming at the end of the spring or early summer. They’ll then go into post-production over the summer. It’s hoped the movie can premier next fall at Sundance or the Toronto International Film Festival.
He’s been talking to local filmmaker Tammy Rea and adds, “I think it would be super cool to bring it to the Haliburton International Film Festival.”