One teacher, one idea and the Internet add up to popular global project.
By Rosemarie Bahr
"He likes flat food," says one Grade 3 student at Wilfrid Jury School in London.
"He likes to sleep in a flat bed," adds another.
Flat Stanley slips under doorways and he can fly like a kite. And because he’s flat — squished when the bulletin board above his bed fell on him one night — he can slip inside an envelope and travel by mail anywhere.
Stanley’s been seen on a yak in Tibet, in the space shuttle Discovery orbiting the earth, at the Louvre, in Antarctica, with President Bill Clinton and on several TV shows. He’s also visited the homes and classrooms of thousands of elementary students throughout Canada, the United States, Australia and the rest of the world.
While Flat Stanley is doing all this visiting, he’s helping students learn to read, write, do math, and where and how other people live. Not a bad job for a paper cutout.
ONE TEACHER, ONE IDEA
In 1995, Dale Hubert was searching for an interesting way to teach reading and writing to Grade 3 students at Wilfrid Jury. Although it was his first year for Grade 3, he had taught Grade 6 for five years and special education for 11.
"I think that learning best takes place when there is meaning," Hubert says. He remembered a book about Flat Stanley and thought it might provide something the kids could send out. Having a pen pal was a good idea he thought, but he knew kids often don’t have much to say when they write.
"But," he says, "when you are sending a Flat Stanley you can say, ‘Hi, I’m sending a Stanley. He likes flat food. I’ve included some pizza and some pancakes. Please keep him by your bed at night because he is afraid of the dark.’ And then when the Stanley comes back he has little marks on him and they can tell what happened to him. ‘He got his arm ripped off while playing street hockey, but my father is a doctor so we reattached it.’ Things like that.
"Especially for the younger children," Hubert continues, "communication in writing is pretty abstract, and so when there is something concrete, like a Stanley that you can both write about, it gives them common ground."
So, Hubert re-read Flat Stanley, written by Jeff Brown in 1964, and decided to base a reading and writing project on the character.
The next step was finding a class in another school that would be willing to host Flat Stanley. Hubert taught himself HTML and put up a web site and posted his request on a few education bulletin boards on the Internet.
In 1995, 13 teachers joined his list. The first few were from Ontario and then one from Hawaii. By December 2001, more than 1,000 classes from all over the world had joined.
Hubert had no idea how large the project would become. "Talk about a book that has changed your life," he says.
Special education teacher Susan Dykstra is a big fan of Flat Stanley. She teaches a mild intellectual disability class, junior level, at Wexford Public School in Toronto. She says, "I’d recommend Flat Stanley highly for anyone up to about Grade 5 or 6. It’s a wonderful literature-based way to show kids the world. My kids think John A. McDonald is a hamburger. But when they get mail from Estonia I don’t have as much trouble teaching the breakup of the USSR. It means something. It’s concrete. It’s a tremendous resource and it’s fun. It’s become a wonderful underground way for children to communicate with each other, and other people too."
One of the keys to Flat Stanley’s success is its open-ended nature. Hubert says, "Teachers can use their own creative ideas. It’s not me telling them how to do it. It is me providing the vehicle and letting the creative teachers do their best work."
Hubert is quick to say he’s not the only teacher who’s had the idea of using Flat Stanley. But as far as he can tell, his is the only web site that tries to make the project a collaborative one, including sharing curriculum ideas. The site contains hundreds of letters and photos from students and teachers and friends of Flat Stanley. The site is fun to visit but it also contains hard information, such as how Stanley fits into the Ontario curriculum.
Sometimes a teacher will write and ask for instructions. Hubert writes back to say "do whatever suits your class." Some divide the class into groups and each group makes a Stanley. In other classes, everyone makes a Stanley. The students send Stanley for a visit to another class or to adults they know.
The web site does have some suggestions, added as Stanley became a more experienced traveller. One is to send out several Stanleys as he does occasionally get lost, or eaten by a shark.
The site also suggests that teachers first send an e-mail to the class they choose to see if that class has time to host Flat Stanley. Then the class sends their Flat Stanleys on a visit, often equipped with a blank journal. On the web site Hubert has listed some questions about a visit that the kids can answer.
Hubert gives an example: "We’ll get a Stanley from Hawaii and it might say ‘Stanley is having a nice time, the weather was quite cool today.’ Quite cool in Hawaii might be different from us. We tell the kids to put down ‘It was three degrees Celsius’ because three degrees Celsius is so different from three degrees Fahrenheit. And then we’d send a Flat Stanley that had had Thanksgiving with us in October, but the Americans hadn’t had Thanksgiving yet. It’s interesting for the kids to try to understand the differences."
Then Hubert adds, "But what they notice most is how similar the kids are. They have the same sort of TV shows, the same sort of issues that they deal with, the same interests."
MORE THAN READING
The Flat Stanley project started to help kids learn reading and writing. But it’s also about math, social studies, art, technology, using e-mail, doing web searches.
In their current Grade 3 class, Hubert and his teaching partner, Charlie Smith, use Stanley and his brother Arthur for examples in a lesson on probability. They’ve also turned Stanley into a time traveller to teach about pioneer life in Canada. Stanley gets dressed in pioneer clothes and eats food that was available then, which means no pizza.
Some of Hubert’s students are going to send their Stanley to celebrities. One girl points out where they find the addresses. She goes to a big book with a list. If it’s not in there, she says quite confidently, "We’ll search the Internet."
The class has also been playing host to some Flat Stanleys from Michigan.
"When we open the Flat Stanley envelope," says Hubert, "we’ll ask what their first impression is, if they think the printing is neat, if they use good grammar. Then we’ll say, ‘Remember, when you send a Flat Stanley and people open yours, they are going to have a first impression, too. What do you want their first impression of you to be?’ The kids want to do their best work because kids like them are going to be opening it."
MEETING JEFF BROWN
Some time into the project, Hubert contacted the publisher of Flat Stanley, but didn’t receive a reply. Later, he noticed an e-mail from Jeff Brown. He thought it might be bad news because he had been using images from Brown’s book without permission. "I didn’t even know if Brown was alive then," says Hubert.
Instead, Brown thought the project was a wonderful idea. Although he was often invited to schools and did speaking engagements for a fee, he offered to visit Hubert’s class for free.
Brown stayed with the Huberts while he was in London and then invited the Hubert family to visit him in Connecticut. "A very enjoyable vacation," reports Hubert. And, after a long hiatus, Brown is writing another story about Stanley Lambchop and his family.
ADULTS LOVE FLAT STANLEY VISITS
Flat Stanley appears to release the creativity and a sense of fun in all adults, not just teachers. The picture gallery on the Flat Stanley web site abounds with photos of Stanleys that have gone adventuring with adults. There’s a photo of a congressman taking Flat Stanley to visit President Clinton, another in Antarctica. Actor Benjamin Bratt pinned Flat Stanley to his suit for a visit to Rosie O’Donnell’s TV show. Other adults have invited Flat Stanley to hang around the set of West Wing, for example, or go up in a U-2 spy plane. One convinced Stanley to re-enlist in the army.
A professor of Family and Consumer Sciences at a Missouri university received a Stanley from her niece. She wrote to Hubert, "I discovered, when bringing FS to my workplace and to my classes that others had already met him. One of my colleagues had received a Flat Stanley from a young relative and videotaped him helping take pigs to market cross-country. The Connecticut city students who viewed the videotape had never seen a live pig, much less so many! The director of media and communications at the college mailed back a CD illustrating the college experience to his nephew’s California classroom...I think there is a story in how Flat Stanley not only enriches children’s lives but provides adults with an excuse to play." The story came with a photo of the university president meeting Flat Stanley.
In 2000, Hubert won a ChildNet award for having an appropriate and safe child web site. He placed second in his category, which entitled him and his family to a week in Washington, D.C., where he accepted the award. He, his daughter and Stanley were posing for a photo in front of the Lincoln Memorial when two tourists from Japan came by and said, "Oh look, he’s got a Flat Stanley." Hubert reports that people all over Washington seemed to know Stanley.
Hubert also received a Prime Minister’s award for teaching excellence in 2000—01.
Visiting the extensive web site shows that the Flat Stanley project has taken a lot of Hubert’s time. "I would be sitting there on a sunny day. My dog wanted to go for a walk and there I was doing the Flat Stanley project. And I would think I should wind this down and then I would get a note from somebody saying how the project refreshed their teaching career or some of those success stories and I would think I can’t quit now."
One letter in particular he remembers. A Michigan teacher wrote: "I have to tell you that your program that I just happened to have stumbled on has been one of the best things that has happened to me! I have taught for 23 years now, and this program has really sparked a new interest in learning for me! My kids know more about geography, letter writing, journaling and other cultures than they have ever before. I am so glad that I found your site."
The Educational Network of Ontario (ENO), a non-profit corporation set up as a collaborative project between the Ministry of Education and the Ontario Teachers’ Federation to provide services to the education community, has been a boon to the project. It hosts the Flat Stanley site and has supplied technical help, including automating the application form, which has freed up time for Hubert.
He hopes to spend more time working on curriculum ideas and expanding the project.
Recently Hubert received a request to join from a veterinary clinic. The vets said they and their staff would be happy to host Stanleys and write about how Stanley spent a day helping to look after the animals. Hubert sees the potential in this idea and speculates that kids could find out about any number of workplaces in this way.
He’d also like Flat Stanley to spend more time in hospitals. "I would like to see some kids who are bed-ridden and unable to travel send a Flat Stanley with their face on it and let it do some virtual travelling to places they’ll never be able to go."
Hubert reports that the Educational Network hopes to be able to offer translation assistance so that Stanley can go to non-English speaking countries.
Stanley has also recently become involved with Books without Boundaries, a project in which kids send books to other places that don’t have many. This project started with an organization called SchoolWorld, based in Australia, and one of Flat Stanley’s early supporters, linking to Hubert’s site almost from the first days.
And then, there’s the teacher from Hong Kong that Hubert met while at the ChildNet awards. She might be able to translate the site into Chinese. Hubert’s eyes light up as he imagines Stanley visiting China and what it would mean to the children to make friends. "I think somebody once said, ‘Flat Stanley for world peace’ sort of as a joke," remarks Hubert, "but when you look at it, there isn’t much the Flat Stanley project couldn’t be involved in."
Fellow teacher Susan Dykstra would probably agree. As she sees it, the Flat Stanley project creates global children.
To find out more about Flat Stanley, sign up for the project or contact Dale Hubert, go to flatstanley.enoreo.on.ca.
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