Students at the Key School use old and new techniques to create the look of Civil War-era photography

Independent schools nurture performing and visual arts
with a wealth of creative lessons, events and showcases.

Andrew Katz has led the visual arts department at the Key School for 16 years, and before that taught art to middle-schoolers in Howard County and Baltimore County public schools. Like other art teachers and art department directors at local independent schools, he believes art education is much more than learning how to hold a paintbrush or draw a face. 

His lessons, he says, are designed to teach students how to express themselves, think critically, use technology, better understand history, and “view the world through an artistic lens.” 

For one assignment, inspired by the French photographer and street artist JR, he asked eighth graders at the Annapolis pre-k-12 school to create large black-and-white portraits of themselves, which were then displayed in windows of the school. “It’s pretty dramatic,” he says.   

Powerful examples of self-expression by students at the Key School.

Sometimes, the students surprise and delight him with their interpretations. “The assignment calls for one person per picture, but our students decided they would work together,” he says. “The Black students in the grade are holding signs in front of their faces with a quote about their hair, the inappropriate comments people make about them, and hands coming in from out of frame, touching their hair.” 

The result: a grid of 15 faces, each mouth covered by a sheet of paper with a handwritten phrase like: “Just brush it,” and “I like it better straight.” 

There’s a technology component, too: video statements created by the students are linked to the images through augmented reality and image-recognition software, and can be accessed by an app.

The project, called Inside/Out, is one of many that uses art to encourage students to express themselves in new and sometimes uncomfortable ways, says Katz.  

Park School middle school students learn about dance.

Arts education is too often considered a luxury, less practical than STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects and not as exciting as sports. But Katz and others at independent schools say learning how to make and appreciate art are essential skills for a well-rounded education – and a full life. 

Powerful examples of self-expression by students at the Key School.

“I want kids to not only appreciate the visual world, art included. I want them to think artfully,” Katz says. “I want them to view the world through an artistic lens. They can appreciate beautiful things, they can appreciate design, appreciate the decisions that are made in putting together an app or a logo.” 

Art instruction takes many forms, and typically includes lessons in visual arts like drawing, painting, sculpting or photography, as well as the performance of dramatic arts like music, theater or dance.

At the St. James Academy, for example, students as young as preschool begin learning fundamentals of music and movement, an education that continues with instrument lessons in third grade and performing arts in middle school. Visual arts at the Monkton school include lessons in art history, instructions in techniques like color mixing and observation drawing, and an artist in residence program. 

Arts curricula don’t exist in vacuums – they typically look to the past for context, and to the future by using new technologies that change how art is made. They teach specific techniques as part of a larger mission of developing creativity, empathy and a critical eye. 

“The arts are an essential part of our daily lives,” reads the arts program web page of the Park School of Baltimore. “They frame our experience of the world, serve as vehicles for personal expression, and enhance our exploration of history, culture, and heritage. Our students experience the arts as painters, actors, dancers, and musicians, as audi – ence members, critics, and teachers. Art is often part of teaching and learning in other subjects. Art is everywhere in the school.” 

Arts are part of an academic curriculum, not separate from it.  

A Park School student shows off her work

When Key School sixth-graders learn about the Civil War, their art classes show them how to use apps and augmented technology to create art that helps plunge them backward in time. 

“We study the photography of the late 1800s and we replicate what they looked like,” he says. “The students get in costume and take the photos, and we use an app to make the images look old. The next step is using augmented reality to lay a video on top of the image, with students reading aloud a letter that they had written, in the style of a person living through the Civil War.” 

At the Park School, a print-making curriculum supports fifth-grade lessons in medieval studies. 

“We see our students as intrinsically creative. We see ourselves on faculty as guides,” says Deborah Hull, Park’s Director of the Arts. 

“I believe that arts education can at its best encourage and equip students to express themselves authentically and skillfully,” Hull says. “My hope is that every child will have joyful, playful artistic connection to who they are. 

The arts are also tools for building connections and making the world a better place. Through a program called Memory Project, high school girls at Notre Dame Prep in Towson connect with peers from another country (this year, it was Syria), and use photos that are sent to them to create portraits, which they return with messages on the back. 

An annual Notre Dame upper school fashion show, called CW Project Greenway — named for student Claire Wagonhurst, who died of melanoma at age 17 — challenges students to create clothing out of recyclable or repurposed materials like coffee filters, socks or junk mail. 

“Part of our mission statement at Notre Dame Prep is to encourage these women to transform the world,” says Christian Leitch, who has been teaching middle-level art for 23 years at the Catholic preparatory school for girls in grades 6 through 12. 

“These girls are creative and critical problem solvers throughout their seven years here,” says Leitch. “What they’re learning in these classes can be translated into life and into their future.” 

 Another popular Notre Dame project, called I Am portraits, marks the end of eighth grade by asking students to draw or paint portraits that include, in the background, their “interests, their beliefs, a lesson they learned in life,” says Leitch. “It helps them realize what they want to explore as they move into high school.”  

This article is part of the 2023-2024 Guide to Baltimore Independent Schools.