A budding collaboration with two external museum partners is giving hundreds of Montgomery County Public School students the opportunity to express the realities of teenage life through their own words, music and artistry.
The partnerships between MCPS students, The Smithsonian Institute and American University first took roots over the summer months, stemming from the advocacy of Bethesda-Chevy Chase High anthropology teacher David Lopilato.
These efforts were recently introduced in a new edition of the county’s student-run magazine, The Amplifier.
“I feel like teenagers are often kind of skipped over, in a sense. I remember feeling like I didn’t have the power to express myself because I was just a kid, and then I didn’t have the time to express myself because I had to grow up,” said Bethesda-Chevy Chase senior Roman Fails, a contributing writer involved in the projects. “So I hope this project really gives teenagers a space to freely and proudly express themselves.”
Lopilato also serves as faculty advisor for The Amplifier, which will be previewing the upcoming exhibits with themed content over its next four volumes.
“This is a chance to give heart and voice to students living through a time of very serious struggles,” Lopilato said. “We’re hoping the new magazine editions and the exhibits will help people empathize with contemporary teenagers and understand the very real mental health crisis facing them.”
Both Fails and fellow B-CC senior/artist Anna Bussolo said Lopilato has been a key coordinator and student motivator when it comes to the new external partnerships.
“Mr. Lopilato likes to call high school a liminal period in your life where things happen really quickly, so you don’t always have time to process your emotions and fully understand what it means to become an adult,” Bussolo said. “He always pushes the fact that teenagers are more than people expect.”
The Smithsonian and American University exhibitions are anticipated to debut summer 2025, and details are still being ironed out as the projects take shape in their unique forms.
The Smithsonian project will be featured at the institute’s annual 10-day summer Folklife Festival, described by curator Michelle Banks as a “living museum celebrating contemporary culture” on the National Mall. Thousands of visitors descend on the festival every summer to explore music, art, workshops, staged performances, impromptu demonstrations and more, Banks said.
The youth-focused exhibition involving MCPS is still in the very early stages of development, Banks said. “These young people are really impressive, and I’m looking forward to having more conversations with them,” she said. “They’re really thinking about how to get students excited about museums, culture and new ideas.”
American University’s exhibit will debut as part of the school museum’s 2025 summer showings at the Katzen Arts Center in downtown D.C., according to museum curator Jack Rasmussen.
Rasmussen said he’ll be working closely with MCPS students to help shape the installation, which will occupy a 5,500-square-foot space on the second floor of the museum open to the public from June through August.
Rasmussen said he’s extremely excited to learn from the young minds who will be taking the reins in crafting the exhibit over the next two years.
“This is going to be a great opportunity to actually get an unfiltered view of what life is like today for teenagers in Montgomery County,” he said. “It isn’t about my idea of what a teenager is and how to present that. It’s really their idea, they’re taking the lead, and that’s going to be a very different thing.”
The content matter and themes featured in the upcoming exhibitions will first be teased in a four-part series called “The Teenager Turns 100” published and distributed across MCPS by The Amplifier. The first of the four volumes—published Sept. 14—focuses on giving narrative to the youth mental health crisis. It features stories and artwork by more than 100 students across MCPS representing 24 county high schools.
Lopilato said Board of Education member Lynne Harris (At-large) has helped ensure copies will be distributed to students at each school during lunch hour, beginning this week. Print copies can be ordered online through magazine’s website and shipped anywhere in the U.S. at no cost. The magazine can also be perused virtually. Winston Churchill senior Auva Vaziri has been heavily involved in the magazine’s production as an editor-in-chief and said she’s enjoyed helping the writers brainstorm ideas and express themselves. Vaziri said she hopes this first edition will help students recognize and embrace their commonalities.
“After working with so many different people across the county and state, when I read the final edition, I realized our experiences are really similar across age groups and demographics,” she said. “That’s been a really insightful experience for me, and I really hope readers see that too.”
Fellow high school editors-in-chief Elizabeth Mehler from Wootton and Milan Bhayana from Bethesda-Chevy Chase echoed Vaziri’s sentiments.
Mehler said working on such a large project in collaboration with students and staff countywide helped her realize “we have a lot more in common with each other than we think.”
Bhayana said he hopes the magazine and corresponding exhibitions help foster cross-generational empathy and compassion.
“We hope these pieces will show people their struggles are shared, they’re not alone as alone as they may feel, and people older than them experience the same things they do,” Bhayana said.
On Friday, Superintendent McKnight will join students, teachers and officials for a launch party at the The Amplifier’s print shop in Rockville to celebrate the magazine’s new series.