Five years ago, the Mater Dei school in Leuven and M joined forces: with the support of the Queen Paola Foundation and M-LIFE, they wanted to find out whether art could help to give children more self-confidence. In June this year, that special project will come to an end. The Conny Feyaerts, teacher at the school, looks back.
The children keep asking when they can go to the museum again
“Mater Dei is located on the Sint-Jacobsplein, in the heart of the city. We have a diverse audience: Leuven children from various backgrounds. Our pedagogical vision is very much focused on art – the musical, as we call it ourselves. We had been taking the children to M for a long time. The school and the museum knew each other, and that’s how the project came about.”
“Art – image, drama, movement... – is a universal language. Everyone can participate, every child can express themselves with it. Last school year, we visited the exhibition of the sculptor family Borman. There was a Greek girl there – it was her second day at school and she didn’t know a word of Dutch or English. But the guide showed her the sculptures and she could pick up on that, look for details... She was involved, and even though she couldn’t talk to her classmates, she belonged immediately. Very important for a child.
“But the project also benefits children who speak perfect Dutch. Maybe they are not doing so well at maths, but you discover other talents through art. Then you feel better about yourself and you automatically perform better at school.”
“With the project, we want to build a bridge between the school and the museum – the project is also called ‘Art Bridge’. We hope that the museum will become a familiar place, a second home so to speak. It would be great if the children could bring their parents along for a visit.”
I was surprised that I’m black The reaction of Ervie, 9 years old, when he saw himself in a video of a movement workshop in an all-white room.
“I have been teaching at Mater Dei for 30 years, and I have been involved with music from the beginning. That is also how I got involved in the project. I teach the third grade, but one day a week I’m free. Then I go to the museum to prepare the projects, together with Sofie Vermeiren, Charlotte Van Peer and Marlies Verreydt from M. I visit the exhibitions, gather information and then look at what fits in with the curriculum of each class: oh, that might be suitable for the first year, that for the fourth... and I try to translate the information into a language that children can understand.”
“My colleagues, of course, are free to choose. I make suggestions and provide them with material, and then they can work with that themselves. In the first years of the project, I delivered everything ready-made, but as the enthusiasm at school grew and the teachers got more involved, I was able to let go more.”
“Preparation in the classroom is very important. When I travel, I look things up beforehand: what is there, what are the nice places... That makes me curious. I want to go and see things because I have read about them. It is the same with children. They like to know what they are going to experience. You don’t have to give away everything, but just enough to get them excited about visiting a museum. You tell them about the artists, you show them a few works... They are very proud that they can answer the guide’s questions. Or that they can say: Ah yes, I know that one! They also look more consciously. They know what is expected of them.”
“I sometimes observe classes at other schools, and then you see children mainly thinking: yay, we don’t have to follow lessons! They don’t really know what they are actually doing in the museum, and that something of a missed opportunity. At Mater Dei, we were of course lucky that my class was made free for this project, and that I could be in charge of contacts with the colleagues. There’s a lot you have to deal with in education, and preparing for a museum visit like this is very labour-intensive.”
“I really think that the project has given children self-confidence. There are some who had a very difficult start in the first year, and then when I see them in the sixth year making guides or a film... What they can and dare to do... You would never have thought it possible.”
“That is mainly because the children get the chance to learn about art and have fun with it. Not just once, but many times. They prepare for the museum visit in class, then they go and see the exhibition, and afterwards they talk about it and make their own little works of art... all little things that make them feel better about themselves. That they feel they are being judged as people, and not just on the grades they get for maths, for example.”
“Children can surprise you, you know. For example, at first I thought that Pieter Vermeersch’s exhibition would not be for them. That’s all about colour and fields of colour, there’s no clearly recognisable story in it, like in figurative paintings. But what they saw in it all! One of the boys said about a red work: That painting was about anger. I know that, because I get angry very quickly when something breaks. They didn’t need a story, they made it themselves based on their feelings.”
“The project ends at the end of this school year. It is a pity that so much has been lost through corona. In any case, I hope that everything will not end abruptly. I don’t expect it to either. The colleagues, the management and the school board are already enthusiastic. The children keep asking when they can go to the museum again. M also are very involved. I hope we will find a way, and the money, to continue in a different, less intensive way.”
Charlotte Van Peer, public relations officer at M, together with teacher Conny, made the project come true. The cooperation with Mater Dei has also had very positive results for the museum itself, she says.
“At M, we want to get children excited about art. An important part of our work therefore focuses on education. But unfortunately, most classes come for a guided tour once a year at the most. So our impact is relatively limited. We can plant a seed, but if we really want to make a difference, we need a longer trajectory. That’s what we found in the cooperation with Mater Dei.”
“The substantive and practical elaboration of the project is in the hands of Conny and M’s Public Mediation team. But at the beginning of each school year, we do submit all the activities to the Queen Paola Foundation and Conny’s colleagues. They then give feedback.”
Before, I didn’t dare say things in my own language. Now I do. I told my friends about my country, Ethiopia, for the first time. Menelik, age 9. During a workshop by movement artist Katrien Oosterlinck, he used his mother tongue for the first time in class.
“We want to disseminate art, that is our task as a museum. But at the same time, we learned a lot from the project. It is very unique that you can cooperate so intensively with a school. The contact with Conny taught us a lot about how a school works. How is a year organised? What happens at staff meetings? How do the lessons take shape? As a result, we can now assess much better what we can do for the education system. We know, for instance, that it is better not to offer any activities in September, or during exam weeks. You internalise that by experiencing such a project.”
“We take Conny’s advice to heart, also for other schools that come to visit M. She looks at things from a teacher’s perspective, but she also knows what M can and cannot do and she knows our collection very well. Hopefully this way we can achieve the best of both worlds.”
How does it work?
Each year of the Mater Dei school has its own programme, tailored to the age of the children.
The children get to know M. What is a museum? How do you behave there? They discover what art is in a playful way. They also get a guided tour from their mates from the sixth form.
The same programme as the first year, but with an extra half-day workshop. The children learn, for example, printing or sculpting.
The first two years of the project, the children follow a basic photography course with Evy Raes. The two following years, they do movement exercises together with artist Katrien Oosterlinck, inspired by works of art in M.
The children spend a few days in the museum – a bit like a camp. This school year, they usually had an immersion day at M. They were supposed to visit St. Peter’s Church, see the depot and learn about the people who work in the museum. Unfortunately, due to the lockdown, this could not take place.
The children are given a guided tour of the museum and, during a workshop, make their own work of art with an iPad. At school they explain to the other classes and their parents about an art discipline of their choice.
M offers the children a course to become guides, with a diploma. The children also give a tour themselves for the first year of Mater Dei and then for their parents and the school’s teachers.