Arts at McCallie
Jamie Baker

Arts at McCallie are not an added frill. They are an integral part of the academic curriculum, valued by the community, and vital for a boy’s balanced development and growth. Beginning in Middle School, McCallie offers an arts curriculum that is both broad and deep, making it easy for a boy to discover a passion and benefit throughout his school career from the high-quality instruction and mentoring available through the arts faculty. Boys have the opportunity to learn the terminology, skills, and techniques of visual, digital, musical, and performing arts. They relish in sharing with the community their well-honed skills and talent through musical performances, art shows, student-created films, original compositions, plays, and directorial debuts. Creativity is valued as an essential component of critical thinking and problem-solving.

“In working on their projects, boys are engaging in the important process of having an idea in the abstract then thinking through what it takes to make that idea real. They must design the many steps and nuanced choices within the process. It’s both complicated and comprehensive. Boys are not led through step by step but coached: are you happy with that? Did it turn out as you wanted? What if you tried it this way, or that?  Did you talk with other boys to see how they did it? Through this line of inquiry, a boy begins to understand the implied expectations of quality and craftsmanship. He learns to push himself to try again, to try a different approach, to experiment with and quantify his own learning.”

Josh Coleman, Art Department Head, 3D Art Teacher

The personal investment it takes to engage and succeed in the arts serves boys for a lifetime. Arts subjects encourage self-expression and creativity. They build confidence as well as a sense of individual identity as a boy learns to interpret the world around him and find his place in the world. Arts courses develop a boy’s attention and focus, demand a disciplined work ethic, improve and expand his communications skills, and help him further develop his ability to receive and incorporate critical feedback.

In addition, whether he is working on producing a visual art piece, singing, or working out the particulars of a character on stage, the study of art helps boys discover, feel, and express their emotions, an essential practice in a culture where boys are often expected to mute their feelings and emotions. A piece of work or performance full of a boy’s expression of his thoughts, ideas, and feelings is subject to criticism and feedback from his teacher and often, his fellow students. The key to this vulnerable position remaining positive and productive is the trusting and respectful relationships that exist between a student, his teacher, and his peers. No doubt that boys are freer to do this emotional development work in the all-boy classroom.

“One of the most important outcomes of art is the confidence that is developed when you achieve something that you didn’t consider yourself capable of before.” 

Paul Merrion, 2D Art Teacher

Taking art at McCallie involves the same sort of rigor and commitment as any other class. Learning outcomes are well-defined and sequenced. Depending on his previous exposure and experience, a boy may be at an intermediate or advanced level starting point, or his McCallie art class might be his first endeavor into painting, drawing, singing, welding, and the like. The instruction and development of each boy is adapted to his skill level, and he has opportunity in his course selection to make choices that align with his interests.

Boys at McCallie really like their arts courses. The arts classroom offers a freer, more social learning environment where boys can stand up, move around, and express themselves. Arts courses enjoy smaller class sizes and have a palpable upbeat energy and morale to them. Boys relish in the opportunity to get their hands dirty, or to leave class to find a photographic opportunity, or to step out back to light up a blowtorch to heat metal to be hammered relentlessly. They enjoy actively engaging with materials. They like tools, often the more dangerous the better. The tools in the 3D shop are real, varied, and industrial in strength. Boys learn to use them safely and are then trusted to use them appropriately as needed.


“I want my students to each realize a journey of personal growth. If they can learn how to see, to understand the power of the visual image beyond the selfie, to view the mundane from a new perspective, and to validate information, they will perceive the world differently and they will leave me as different people. This combined with a persistent work ethic will give them agency to control their own excellence throughout their lives. For this reason, I believe I am teaching my students to be exceptional people and leaders 20 years into their future.”

Dave Porfiri,  Director of the Center for Animation, Video, and Entertainment (CAVE), Filmmaking and Cinema Teacher

Boys are not required to fulfill their arts requirement in a particular year so the art classes tend to be mixed ages as well as mixed skill levels. There is a hum of productivity in the art classes as boys create work, receive feedback, and push through versions and iterations, free to create through trial and error without judgement. The environment is more relaxed and refreshing, physically and mentally at the same time, providing a nice counterbalance to other types of academic courses.

“Society often encourages boys to suppress emotion. Music gives them an outlet of discovery, practice, and expression.”

Brent Alverson, Director of Instrumental Music


“In orchestra we train for and work toward a common goal. We perform in real time for a live audience. Each player has a specific job to do. Any weakness he has pulls the whole team down. Like sports, there is a lot of skill development and training of large muscle movement, muscle memory, and core muscle strength. Diligent and relentless practice separates the good from the standout.”

Nichole Pitts, Adjunct Strings Instructor

Beginning in 9th grade, boys are required to earn 1 arts credit (2 semesters) to graduate; many take more. Boys who enter McCallie after 9th grade are required to earn .5 arts credit (1 semester). Many boys stick with art courses for the whole time they are at McCallie even though this means giving up a free period. They do this for a number of reasons, including the social atmosphere, more hands-on and project-based learning, and for the sense of accomplishment working at an art gives them. There is not a typical path at McCallie. Some boys find an area of art they enjoy and study it throughout their time at McCallie. A boy might belong to the Wind Ensemble or Men’s Chorus for their entire four years. Other students try a little bit of everything, taking 3D Art one semester, then Photography, then Graphic Design.

Beginning in 6th grade, middle school students choose each semester which arts course they would like to take. Their options include guitar, band, chorus, orchestra and visual arts. The goal in Middle School is to get boys hooked so that they want to continue fully in the arts throughout their high school years. Finding an arts niche, be it in visual arts, filmmaking, drama, or music, gives boys a sense of belonging, camaraderie, and community as well as the opportunity to explore and develop a passion.

The study of the arts develops many important skills that transfer to boys’ other courses and serve them throughout their lives. They learn how to observe and look closely. They learn how to feel empathy. They learn to see connections. They learn to extrapolate the rich and complex story possibilities in a work of art they are analyzing, and to tell stories in expressive and nuanced ways when creating their own art. Importantly, they learn to solve problems and develop the confidence to trust in their own abilities.

At the most fundamental level, art is about problem-solving. It is not enough to have interesting ideas. Boys learn how to translate those ideas into time and space. They must learn to think through the steps of their projects and the time, tools, materials, and resources needed to complete each step. Of course, the right approach is hard to judge, especially accounting for having to do things again and again to get them as desired. Nonetheless, boys learn to figure it out when presented with enough context, knowledge, and permission to explore the range of the tools and mediums, to discover the possibilities in combinations and techniques. A boy has an enormous amount of agency and responsibility. There is also a great production expectation. In this way, learning art is both individualized and personal.

Boys are encouraged to find solutions. There is lots of trial and error which takes large amounts of focus and persistence. The level of partnership and collaboration with his teacher and his classmates is enormous. His teacher who offered real time feedback and a boy who solved the same problem in his own unique way with the same tools and medium provide different ways to learn.

Boys develop an emotional connection to their work, but even more to their efforts and to the process of learning hands-on. This is true whether he studies drawing, sculpting, singing, filmmaking, playing an instrument, or performing on stage. The teacher offers real time instruction and criticism, and because of their relationship, a boy is able to receive what is offered and weave new levels of understanding into the next iteration of his work and/or process. There is a great vulnerability at play when a boy exposes his creative self and work to criticism. And, a great confidence is built when a boy is able to act on what feedback is offered to deepen his understanding, skill level, and opportunity to make and express meaning.

Studying the arts shares many similarities with pursuing sports, particularly in the ensemble arts like drama, chorus, band, and other music ensembles. Ensembles are teams. They are working toward a common goal: an exceptional performance. Everyone has a specific role to play and job to do. Everyone must pay attention and be engaged all the time, whether he is playing or not.

There are over 300 boys who participate in the music program and ensembles at McCallie. Each year music students perform on campus at Candlelight, Whirlwind, concerts, football games, school events, and individual recitals. Various ensembles are invited to perform off campus in the local area and at celebrated places like Carnegie Hall, Harvard, Disney World, and on tour in the United Kingdom. Like in sports, players train hard and practice regularly. Feedback and criticism are provided for each person to get better and to work at his performance. For success in an ensemble, there must be a trusting and supportive atmosphere. Disciplined concentration and collaboration are essential to prolonged engagement and playing.

“We teach a lot of things in our music classes and some of it is music. Fundamentally, chorus is about working and bonding as a group. We also focus on developing our voices so we can give voice to issues and things we believe in.”

James Harr ’92, Director of Choral Programs and Handbell Programs

Art and Science are both attempts to understand and describe the world around us. Artists and scientists both attempt to see the world in new ways. Each approach is grounded in critical thinking. The Innovation Lab and engineering classroom are learning spaces designed to physically work at stations with tools and materials like the art classroom. Both disciplines are focused on creative problem-solving:

  • Identify and define the problem
  • Look at the issue from different angles and perspectives
  • Generate possible solutions and original ideas
  • Use trial and error to test possible solutions and feed into next trial what is learned
  • Communicate and push ideas forward
  • Trust a structured approach and routine to lead to the solution

Artists and scientists need to be analytical. They might need to challenge an idea that already exists or come up with something new. Understanding the fundamentals of their disciplines makes them stronger practitioners. Being creative is a way of thinking, a way of viewing the world and inventing new ideas and approaches.

McCallie understands and believes that a boy’s education would be unbalanced and incomplete without the study of arts. Through study and participation in the arts, boys develop resilience, grit, and a growth mindset. The art of making revives and makes stronger the connection of the head and the heart. It involves the combination of imagination, technical knowledge and skills, and the tenacity to fail forward. Studying and participating in the arts is serious play: really hard work that seems less hard because it is enjoyable. Boys learn a multitude of communication skills through the arts. Being in a music ensemble, they learn verbal, physical, non-verbal, and emotional communication of underlying emotions. In drama boys learn to express and communicate beyond words. Developing his artistic vision, aptitude, and personality can be a fun, social, celebratory, and exhilarating process. He also learns to trust his own planning, effort and execution.

Learning art creates more successful people – men who are confident, creative, open-minded and individual thinkers who are good communicators, collaborators, and skilled as leaders and followers. Learning to be honest in his criticism of self and others, valuing the iterative process of doing and re-doing, and developing a self-propelled work ethic – all skills developed and honed through the arts – develops self-understanding and cultural understanding that provide a firm foundation for each boy’s further learning and development.

“In my class boys learn how to approach difficult things. They learn there is no shortcut for practice and hard work.”  

Michael McCallie, Director of Guitar Programs

“Colleges appreciate that McCallie boys take advantage of opportunities in the arts—particularly in chorus and drama—that boys in a co-ed school setting often don’t see as cool. In our experience, art can lead to majoring in materials engineering, or theater leads to majoring in comedy (yes, we have a student doing that right now!), or students with a keen interest in sculpture pursuing architecture. Quite often a student’s musical skill or artistic talents lead to a lifelong interest, or to just being a well-rounded, knowledgeable person, and colleges appreciate that, too.”

Jeff Kurtzman, Director of College Counseling