Figures of Speech: How Keystone's Online Classrooms Become Creative Platforms for Student Expression
Posted 04/17/2020 11:06AM


Third-grader Emily Chen captures this serene photo of a blossoming tree for her Visual Arts class assignment


Just by looking at the collection of photographs taken by the third-grade students of Chinese Visual Arts teachers Tao Sun and Nan Lu, one can already smell the fragrance and freshness of spring flowers adorning Beijing now.

Even Mr. Sun marvels at the richness and artistry of the pupils, who submitted the photographs for an assignment. It helps, he says, that the homework prompt is simple: go outside in their garden and capture the signs of spring.

The third graders, along with their peers across different grade levels at Keystone Academy, have gone a long way since the online learning and teaching program began three months ago.

Initially starting as a way to consolidate and strengthen previous teaching methods, Keystone’s online classrooms have become more diverse and systematic, promoting learning in exciting ways and becoming creative platforms for student expression.

The garden of third-grader Krystal Yao teems with blooming flowers


Communicating What’s in Your Mind

The current phase of the online learning program at Keystone’s Secondary School is more dynamic and challenging, with classes interacting in live lessons and engaging in rigorous learning activities. Online learning continues to be an individual pursuit and a collaborative process. It is also experiential, offering opportunities to apply knowledge outside the classroom.

In a formative activity for a tenth-grade Drama class, Elva Han enlisted the help of her father for a one-minute performance over the enchanting harmony between tweeting birds and sweet harp strums.

The duo, seated beside a large mirror, begin a graceful routine of hand and leg movements. As the melody progresses, they reflect each other’s actions, placing their hands onto the partner’s shoulders and laps. Elva leans her head onto her father, who then pushes her back. The repetition continues until the duo release their hands from each other and put their legs down.

Elva Han and her father explore the Chair Duet method to convey the idea of contradiction. 


Drama classes often require face-to-face cooperation, so teaching theatrical concepts and conducting activities online becomes a challenge. Mr. Godiah says that although students are left “in the dark” with the absence of a teacher, he finds the online learning program is pushing students to become “good teachers to themselves and their peers.”

In this formative activity, Mr. Godiah has utilized the creative expression techniques developed by the UK-based theater company Frantic Assembly. His tenth graders previously reviewed the routines and approaches of the company, and then experimented with the help of a family member.

For her performance, Elva has followed the Chair Duet approach, using simple yet fluid movements that are seemingly done without any context. But through repetition with a partner—in her case, her dad—the actions begin to create meaning. The tenth grader says she wanted to represent the idea of quarreling and contradiction between friends: how there are “two sides to things” and how they can reach conciliation.

Elva says her dad initially thought the Drama assignment would be complicated but agreed to join after she had explained the intention of the activity to him.

“I worked out the movements and exercises with him,” Elva adds, “And finally, we presented the performance! Dad is very cooperative and supportive of my schoolwork. Acting with family and friends is indeed different. But I think I'm going well!”


Elva says the Drama activity has taught her to better use non-verbal forms of communication to express an issue


“This is why I was confident that doing this with a family member would allow my students to teach themselves something new, simple, and exciting,” Mr. Godiah says. More than this, he says the activity gives the teenagers a chance to build on the skills of collaboration, attentive listening, and effective communication.

Making Your Ideas Known

In the tenth-grade English classes, students have explored journalism as a platform for expressing ideas. For the unit “Is It Fit to Print?” Teachers Jason Burroughs, Marcella Cooper, Sandra Clark-Guillotel, and Kristy Pfennig tapped into the expertise of Beijing-based freelance writer Marjorie Perry for a workshop on understanding journalism as a career and developing the skill of story pitching.

Ms. Perry, whose bylines appear in The New York Times, The Economist, CNN, and more, says she aimed to provide students with a real-world opportunity to apply lessons in their English classes and develop their ability to present logical arguments. She adds the activity has also allowed the students to participate in a global conversation, since many of them submitted pitches about the ongoing pandemic.


Marjorie Perry (in the inset) says she was impressed with the wide range of topics that the students proposed during the online workshop on journalism and story pitching

Kevin Zhang is one of the participants from the class of Mrs. Cooper. He is aiming to send editors his story idea about the potential impact of social isolation on students’ mental health.

“Ms. Perry is very interested in my topic and she even used it as an example in her discussion,” he says. “She said it was brilliant. I didn't know what happened after writing this pitch until I was contacted by our school counselor Ms. Candace [Gadomski] and asked what Keystone can do to help students resume our social activities. This definitely surprised me!”

Kevin’s classmate, Jim Long, has written a pitch about how schools use the internet to continue teaching during the pandemic, saying that “readers would pay attention to a topic like this.” Like many people his age, Jim gets the news mostly through internet feeds and news apps. He expresses his opinions through social media—a tool he says is so convenient that it causes another disadvantage: “When everyone is sharing, there must be some inaccuracies or biased opinions.”

“We need to be critical when looking through the news and need to recognize the veracity of the messages we receive, so we don’t get misled by wrong information,” Jim says.

Ms. Perry is impressed with the Keystone students, who she says are “aware of the world.” She emphasizes that it is critical for students to “have a high degree of media literacy and be proficient in digging through the vast content of the internet.”

“In terms of being a media consumer during times of crisis, my sense is that it is easy for the digital space to take on a divisive tone quickly. Some leaders also do not help this situation by some things they say or the terminology they use. I hope students will maintain a commitment to logical argument, to critical reading of media coverage across multiple languages and platforms,” she adds.

An Experience Full of Surprises

The eighth graders of Chinese Civilization teacher Yuanching Huang have recently published their online booklets on traditional Chinese culture during the Ming and Qing dynasties. The projects double as a summative assessment in the unit where they investigated the impact of western knowledge on the development of Chinese society during those two periods.

Ms. Huang has integrated more digital resources into her cyber classes, including the virtual platforms developed by the National Museum of China, to bring students closer to historical and cultural artifacts that are currently unreachable due to the health crisis. Besides teaching cultural heritage, Ms. Huang hopes that the digital forms of presenting the concepts they researched will inspire students to explore even further and give them a sense of accomplishment.


This booklet by Helen Liu is produced using a special e-magazine publishing site


Helen Liu’s booklet about the architecture and style of the Old Summer Palace shows just that. Helen says she spent a lot of thought in composing the document but found it easier to present her ideas through the resources shared by her teacher. The booklet looks neat and professional, making it ready for mass printing.

Another eighth grader, Amy Gao, considers she hit two birds with one stone in Ms. Huang’s class. Aside from gaining knowledge about Chinese history, she also learned how to use online publishing platforms to express her views. She also likes that she can listen to class recordings, making it easier for her to “digest the content of the course even better.”

“In the future, interactive classroom platforms such as Kahoot and Padlet will be used more often to assess student learning and will replace the traditional question-and-answer class format,” Ms. Huang says. “This experience is full of surprises. It has allowed me to think more about learning from the perspective of students. It will also help me design my teaching methods.”

Knowledge Is Blooming

The online learning program has stimulated the creativity of young learners over Keystone’s Primary School. Online classrooms become centers of positive interactions, enhance collaboration, and facilitate self-discovery and self-efficacy between students and teachers. Students also take ownership of their learning and take risks as they accomplish goals and challenges.

The Seesaw account of Chinese Visual Arts teacher Tao Sun teems with colorful spring vistas, thanks to his third graders who enthusiastically submitted their latest homework: go to their garden and take a snap of flowers.


The third-grade Chinese visual arts class had a simple assignment: capture flowers. This is what Aurora Cui submitted.


“Through this activity—breathing in fresh air in the garden and finding the footsteps of spring—children feel the beauty of nature in this special period. It is the close connection to life that has significantly increased the submission rate of homework in this unit,” Mr. Sun says.

That IPC (International Primary Curriculum) unit he is referring to is “Paintings, Pictures and Photographs,” where the third graders explored artistic visual expressions for their Chinese Visual Arts class from mid-March until early April. The young Keystone artists began examining the genre of still life through the artworks of French impressionist painter Paul Cezanne. They then moved onto trying their own compositions using home décor and digital equipment.

The online teaching period has posed a challenge to Mr. Sun and his colleagues in the third-grade level, as they have to think about how students can source materials for their art projects. They also need to teach the kids new knowledge while informing them of the current health crisis. What the teachers have done is to conduct art activities that make use of available equipment at home and link these to themes that develop physical and mental wellbeing.

Mr. Sun adds the guidelines for the second phase of the online learning program have informed the recently ended arts unit, in that the homework showed how students felt excited and appreciated art and nature while learning to use a new platform to express their artistic skills.

“I find it hard to believe that my third graders did these during the online learning period,” Mr. Sun says, “You can see how invested they were in the works and it moves me so much. That’s why I’m so proud and confident to share these works with the entire Keystone community.”


Photos: Emily Chen, Krystal Yao, Elva Han, Aurora Cui

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