Express Yourself: Tenth graders make their voices heard in Personal Project Exhibition

By Andy Peñafuerte III

The desire for expression has been one of humankind’s greatest passions. Expression can be a kind of power that allows everyone to be who they want to be. Tenth graders at Keystone Academy have recently exhibited their Personal Project products that celebrate the power of individual expressions, bright ideas, and inspiring personal stories. They documented the process as part of their academic requirements in Keystone’s Middle Years Programme (MYP).

Personal Project coordinator Slobodan Narič says this undertaking not only prepares students for the demands of higher-level academic work but also stimulates them to develop initiatives or build on existing projects that will improve themselves and the communities around them. Mr. Narič is impressed by the breadth of knowledge shown in this year’s collection of 102 unique projects and, even more, by the level of confidence and understanding that student exhibitors gained in the process.

“We live in a society that dictates us to be uniform, follow the conventional, and stick to the status quo. But the world out there that seems so plain holds so much beauty, wisdom, and knowledge,” Mr. Narič adds. “We, as teachers, want our students to discover those jewels themselves and use them to enrich their individualities. Many have told me how much they have changed since starting their Personal Project journeys. And that is the most amazing thing for me.”


Teen issues take center stage in the exhibition

Generation Z—or the so-called zoomers—are hyperconnected, and Jana Zhou, being one of them, is fully aware of that. She reckons that she and the people around her spend nearly two-thirds of their days immersed in what she calls an “ocean of technology” reflected mainly on mobile screens, most of which are used up by WeChat, Douyin, and other social platforms. A dip or two into this ocean and you’ll drift away with others who swim in a deluge of addicting content. Many zoomers have already become lost in the distorted utopia represented by the online world, as Adele Huang learns. Some of them, she says, are female youths who fall prey to false standards of beauty.

A number of products in the Personal Project exhibition focused on the effects of technology on teenagers’ mental health and image of self. Jana infuses her passion for dancing to create a choreographic video that conveys the dangers of misuse of technology. It features a teenager enraptured by the illusory pleasures of the digital world, going astray from her loved ones. Meanwhile, Adele seeks to counter the ill effects of technology with an online repository of resources about body shaming. Being a victim of body shaming herself, Adele knows that other young girls turn to the internet to seek answers or validation, so she hopes her website can transfer positive messages to others.

Students like Effy Lei and Isabella Zeng have turned to art to articulate their understanding of self-worth. Effy applies her growing knowledge of psychology to take on the issue of bullying in her project, a collection of diary entries that she wrote based on her interviews with classmates and friends. In the process, Effy learned that bullying manifests in different forms, including those that society tends to judge as ordinary conflicts. She presents a manga-style anthology whose entries are based on real-life events. Its fictional writers detail their personal understanding and, at times, over-interpretation and misreading of others’ actions that ultimately lead to bullying. Here, she hopes that readers will find the wisdom to handle conflicts in their lives and manage their interpersonal relationships better.


Meanwhile, Isabella’s installation features a giant rabbit whose snout is shut by nails and body peppered with pieces of notes, all of which represent the silence and detachment faced by victims of verbal abuse, particularly bullying. She also accompanies the leporine figure with two original paintings that explore the psychological concepts of id and superego to present her complex and different emotions creatively. Isabella says her project tackles the psychological perspective of expression so she can better explore her inner self.


When personal experiences become part of the solution

Many of the tenth-grade exhibitors built their Personal Project products on their ongoing initiatives, observations, or recent experiences to outline solutions to social issues. For instance, Wuhan native Lena Wu, who was in the city during its lockdown following the outbreak of the then-called novel coronavirus, opened a three-part installation about COVID-19. Funky, colorful, and inviting, Lena’s project offered a 180-degree turn to the pessimistic side of the pandemic.

For the “past” part of the installation, Lena reprinted her poignant diary entries during the lockdown. However, she wanted her exhibition guests to understand the “present” state of the crisis: the environmental impact of the pandemic due to discarded face masks. Shocked to learn that a mask would take at least 450 years to degrade, Lena prompted her guests to think about ecosystems and oceans littered with masks. She tapped into her Design class lessons to offer bold solutions in the “future” part of her exhibition: furniture and toilets made of recycled masks.


There was another “hit” project in the exhibition: Tim Yang’s bottled waters. Primary students flocked to his booth, intrigued by his straightforward presentation of different kinds of bottles. In his year-long investigation, Tim discovered that up to 550,000 liters of potable water are wasted every year in China because of poorly designed canisters or bottles discarded right away. That amount is enough to make 932,203 venti-sized cups of Starbucks coffee! Tim proposes solutions like creating a recycling station or adding scratchcard-type of ink to identify bottles easily. But the simplest way, he told his visitors, is still drinking water in bottles down to their very last drop.


Meanwhile, visitors to Katie Lan’s booth received a handbook on mitigating poverty in China. This publication results from her eight-year-and-counting charity work for children of migrant workers in a village in Sichuan province. She compiled the records of her interactions with three migrant children and organizations around them to identify issues in charitable work. Katie uses her project to challenge everyone to rethink their understanding of philanthropy and consider the long-term and unseen impact of assistance on its recipients. She quotes one of her interviewees, a lawyer who volunteers for a non-government organization, to advance the idea of looking at charity as if it is a hand: its bones standing for the government’s structure, its flesh symbolizing social enterprises, and nerves representing the people who mobilize support.


Going deep to reach greater heights

Other students explored their interests to reach greater heights, quite literally in the case of Nick Liu, who is one of Keystone’s most promising varsity basketball players. His project idea, how to jump higher, may seem simple but it packs a greater goal: he wants to make winning dunks for the team before he enters Grade 11. His product has effectively become a fitness regimen with techniques for him and other young athletes, and even pieces of advice for others who routinely skip leg days. During the exhibition, Keystone basketball coach Allen Chen challenged Nick to follow the regimen religiously for 90 days, and also to prepare for the next athletic season. Nick gladly took on the challenge!

Football aficionado Jason Hu looked at the financial crisis faced by the top-tier Futball Club (FC) Barcelona due to COVID-19 restrictions. He combined his interests in football, economics, and business management to write Catalonian Catastrophe: From a European Superpower to a Bunch of Mess, a critical magazine that reviews organizational misjudgments and evaluates past and potential transfers in FC Barcelona. Jason considers writing the magazine a “decent preparation” for his upcoming Diploma Programme (DP) course on business management.

The process of creating Personal Project products also allowed students like Zhu Zifeng and Annie Geng to go deeper into culture. Annie’s project, a 62-page illustrated manual about the Central Axis of Beijing, is inspired by an evocative exhibition at the Capital Museum that detailed the history and mystery of the capital’s ancient architectural landmarks. What makes Annie excited about her publication is that it is timely since the Central Axis is currently nominated for inclusion on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites in China. Even more, she says, her English handbook gives many people an opportunity to enjoy and understand such a majestic cultural treasure that “belongs to both China and the world”.


Zifeng Zhu’s project combines what she considers two of the most shocking and fascinating things in the world: literature and death. Her minimalist project is a three-chapter collection of poems and short stories about death in different cultures. The first part, titled Ephemerality, expresses the briefness of life, while the following part, named Periodicity, celebrates the cycle of one’s being on earth. The poignant closer, Eternity, immortalizes one’s existence and leaving. For Zifeng, her project is memento mori—a reminder that one has to die—and a powerful form of enlightenment. “Death contains eternal wisdom,” she adds, “and it will always be the most profound miracle in life.”


Head of Middle School Meredith Phinney addressed her student audience during the exhibition launch, saying that the Personal Project and the Capstone Project components of Keystone’s academic program in middle school are “two of the most relevant and authentic learning experiences that any student can have.” She asked students to look at the Personal Project as an opportunity to uncover characteristics and skills needed in the world today.

“In completing these projects,” Ms. Phinney reminded students, “you demonstrate so much more than just doing them [to fulfill academic requirements]. You show the world and yourself that you can stay the course, that you can stick to something when it becomes challenging. And this is one of life’s most important lessons. There will be many times when you will say, ‘I want to give up’, ‘It’s too hard’, or even ‘What is the point of doing this?’ But it is the resilient person who fights those voices and perseveres. And this exhibition is an example of that.”