Norman Rockwell Museum appoints new chief educator leadership role

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STOCKBRIDGE — In a move to further expand its national and global profile through digital education, the Norman Rockwell Museum has appointed Mary A. Berle, a Harvard-trained educator, to the new leadership position of chief educator, effective Sept 1.

Berle is leaving her post as principal of Muddy Brook Elementary School in Great Barrington on June 30, ending a 13-year career in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.

"Everyone involved with this museum has always believed that Rockwell and his messaging belongs to the nation as well as to our community," Director/CEO Laurie Norton Moffatt told The Eagle. "Just as we travel our exhibitions and do our outreach nationally with our collections, it has always been our dream and vision to connect our educational materials nationally into the schools."

She pointed out that the museum has had its curriculum online for 20 years "in what I call our analog way; you can print out your teacher workbook and teach your lessons the traditional way."

But the decision to hire a chief educator, Norton Moffatt said, stems from the museum's major expansion of programming and broadening of its mission a decade ago "to include and embrace illustration art and grow our illustration collection."

She credited chief curator Stephanie Plunkett and team members for high-profile on-site and traveling exhibitions such as "The Four Freedoms" and the upcoming "Keepers of the Flame" this summer, significant expansion of research and scholarly work, as well as public programming at the museum, which attracted 135,000 visitors last year.

"All our knowledge creation is available to the world," Norton Moffatt noted, especially since the museum's collections became digitized starting in 2000.

She also cited the additional investment in digital education coordinated by digital learning director Rich Bradway since he came aboard three years ago.

The need for more planning to achieve the museum's aspirations and raise its online profile nationally led to the decision to recruit Berle, who explained that she was "making a decision to have a next adventure, and this qualifies as that. To join a remarkable team is a deep pleasure."

"It was serendipity that this opportunity arose at this time," Norton Moffatt said, "and I'm surely glad I reached out to Mary before she accepted one of her other opportunities."

"Immediately what appealed to me is this is actually the first job I've had since college that weaves together all my different experiences," Berle said.

She was named principal at Muddy Brook in 2014 after three years as director of learning and teaching. Previously, she taught third grade at the school and coordinated the math curriculum.

Berle also expanded the district's early childhood programming and created Muddy Brook's unicycle club, a weekly program that has involved more than 200 students.

Previously, Berle created an inquiry-based math and science curriculum for TERC (formerly Technical Education Research Center) in Cambridge, a nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing the teaching and learning of mathematics for all students and teachers.

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The large-scale projects were funded by the National Science Foundation and are widely used across the nation's schools and internationally.

A 1983 graduate of Monument Mountain Regional High School, Berle received her bachelor's degree in visual and environmental studies from Harvard College in 1987, and her master's in education in human development from Harvard University in 1990.

"Ideally, what we want to do is to make the experiences here and in our community digitally accessible," Norton Moffatt said. "Mary has the knowledge and know-how, and this position is designed to take this material out to a national level."

Technical access in schools "is only as good an educational tool as the content that a school district can feed into it," she added.

The ultimate goal, she said, is to make sure that the museum's content and teaching materials are available to schools across the nation so students can be taught visually about the U.S. Constitution and the civil rights movement through digital lesson plans.

Summing up Berle's forthcoming role, Norton Moffatt described the concept as "pulling all of our learning and audience sectors together under one thinker with our team," including on-site visitation, as well as mobile and internet portals.

"This is an extremely impressive, qualified team of people working really hard and successfully," said Berle, a Stockbridge native, "Our work together is just to amplify that and have it land in ways that are thoughtful and interactive, reaching broader audiences."

She said the position was created "not because there was some great need but because the team was so successful."

As Norton Moffatt put it, "there has been such an explosion of content, I realized we're at capacity now under the existing time and space anyone has in their roles to take the reach farther. We have such phenomenal content, and you want to take it out into as many portals as possible, because people are engaging with information in so many ways today."

"Visual learning opens doors to children in a different way," she said. "Amazingly, that's Mary's specialty; her college thesis was on being a visual learner."

Berle noted that "we have a nation of third-graders, many of whom don't read fluently yet, but they're ready to grapple with big ideas."

She lives in Stockbridge and is the mother of three children — Louisa, Thomas and David. An outdoors enthusiast, she has ridden her bicycle from Seattle to Los Angeles and then across the U.S.

Despite the museum's focus on digital learning, Norton Moffatt pointed out that "the visit here will always be the primary experience. We also have to realize that most of the world will never have the opportunity to visit Stockbridge and we think the Rockwell collection — the importance of illustration art in understanding our country, unintended bias and how images have shaped our view of cultural, race and heritage in this country — these are important tools.

"Every citizen and every child growing up should be able to access and understand our First Amendment rights through freedom of speech," she said.

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter@BE_Cfanto and at 413-637-2551.


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