Freedom of Learning
Norman Rockwell’s art is seen, touched, and discussed by schoolchildren
Photos by Anastasia Stanmeyer
It was not uncommon for Norman Rockwell, during the quarter-century that began in 1953, to visit with students at Stockbridge Plain and West Stockbridge Village schools. Central to his creative process as an artist was storytelling. In Rockwell’s iconic paintings, children represent possibility; they embody his belief that the next generation will show us the way.
Rockwell’s influence was such that his hometown of Stockbridge became associated with the very depiction of small-town America, even being called Rockwellian. The artist and illustrator whose studio overlooked Main Street allowed him to observe his fellow residents’ daily lives. In turn, he was easily spotted traversing his regular bike route to Lake Averil.
In today’s fast-paced world, as the quaint and idealistic portrayal of bygone days eludes the current generation, local children are benefiting from ongoing efforts by the Norman Rockwell Museum to make the work of a local American icon both accessible and relevant.
This fall, pupils across Berkshire County will be given access to Rockwell’s legacy. Some will don white-cotton gloves and flip through original copies of The Saturday Evening Post in the museum archives. Others will learn to look for the messages in Rockwell’s work—recognizable pieces such as the artist’s 1943 series “The Four Freedoms” depicting Freedom From Fear, Freedom From Want, Freedom of Worship, and Freedom of Speech. His 1953 drawing United Nations includes 65 faces representing the countries of the world. Rockwell returned to this in 1961 with Golden Rule, an emblematic message that we are all one humanity, and representative of the type of work he would go on to do.
Rockwell’s Golden Rule proved pivotal in Maegan Warner’s third-grade classroom at Muddy Brook Elementary. Students used the painting as a springboard for discussion, not only to employ compassion and to better understand others but also to connect with their own stories. Warner cites the “incredible collaboration” as introducing a protocol that invites a line of questioning completely void of correct answers. “What do you notice?” and “What do you think?” were at the root of the lessons brought to the more than 70 Great Barrington third graders. Their responses were riveting: “I notice his skin is brown,” said one boy; “I notice his hands are clasped,” said another. “I notice she has a cloth on her head,” is another observation, all of which pave the way for important discussions about the challenges we all face—from race and religion as reflected in Rockwell’s painting to divorce and domestic abuse in the students’ lives.
Creating an immersive program was the driving force behind the museum’s newest initiative. The Student Passport Program, piloted last year at Muddy Brook and Pittsfield’s Morningside Elementary and carried forward to other schools this fall, aims to provide a full-spectrum learning opportunity for third- and fourth-grade students throughout Berkshire County.
“How do images make us think and feel?” is the type of question around which museum educators are building their programming. Norman Rockwell Museum director Laurie Norton Moffatt says she and her colleagues are “using Rockwell’s art to show us how to speak our mind and listen respectfully.” This, coupled with the fact that increased pressure on time and resources has caused a well-established field-trip program to diminish in schools, presented a logical space in which to develop the museum’s outreach.
In the first step of the Passport Program, museum educators work with classroom teachers to identify a grade level, to find relevance to the curriculum, and to create a foundation of understanding for what will be seen at the museum. The second aspect involves a visit to the museum, where students and teachers are able to experience original works of art—significant, considering students’ pervasive digital experience today. At the close of this portion, each student is given an actual passport, valid for admission when the child returns with his/her family.
The museum’s aim is “to make museum going a regular part of ongoing family life,” says Norton Moffatt who, along with Stephanie Plunkett, deputy director and chief curator, was instrumental in shaping the programming that ultimately will be made available to all elementary schools throughout the county. Last year, during the pilot program, a Family Day included transportation from Pittsfield to Stockbridge to encourage those families for whom transportation is an issue to attend. A full morning of tours and art activities for both adults and children was organized.
Illustration can communicate ideas and inspire change, says Plunkett. Rockwell’s work “retains a relevance that becomes more urgent and compelling as the world around us shifts. There are moments that elevate us as people, and these are the moments that we grasp when we are struggling in other ways—these are the moments Rockwell held onto.”
The Far Reach of Rockwell
The educational arm of the Norman Rockwell Museum has been central to its mission. “It was Norman Rockwell’s wish that his collection be used to educate and engage the broadest of audiences,” explains Norman Rockwell Museum director Laurie Norton Moffatt. An extensive digital curriculum for grades K-12 is available through the museum’s website. And a $1.5-million grant from the George Lucas Family Foundation has been earmarked to strengthen the museum’s Digital Learning and Engagement Division, enabling the museum to create a range of robust multi-media experiences for visitors onsite and online as well as for its traveling exhibitions. The partnership between the museum and Lucas, an avid collector of Rockwell art, evolved from the shared belief that Rockwell’s art transcends generations and cultures, communicating universal ideals.