Written by Nikki Muyskens ETA’09-10

One of my fifth graders began an English competition speech this way, so I too pose the same question: Do you know Flat Stanley? If not, then please allow me to introduce you. He is a paper doll, roughly based on Jeff Brown’s 1964 children’s book of the same name. Flat Stanley takes advantage of his shape by traveling all over the country or the world in an envelope! As a Fulbright ETA, I am committed to my role as a cultural ambassador as well as my job as an English teacher, and I am convinced that the Flat Stanley project that I oversaw and completed in the fall of 2009 went far to develop basic intercultural understanding, as well as the English skills of my students.

When I introduced Flat Stanley to my school, I had each of my students created their own doll to send off to the U.S. Intrigued and perhaps a little mystified about the project, each student created their own paper traveler and enclosed a picture of themselves, a short self-introduction paragraph, Flat Stanley’s journal, and note from their teacher — me. We then mailed all 35 of these Flat Stanleys to 35 different people in America. Those who received a Flat Stanley corresponded with my students by writing about themselves in the journal and taking pictures of the doll participating in different activities and adventures before sending him to a new location and host in a different part of the country.

We received numerous postcards, photos, brochures, ticket stubs and maps in the mail — some hosts even sent souveneirs like T-shirts, calendars and baseball cards. These small items would have been of great interest to my students even in a simple show-and-tell setting; however, because they were addressed directly to each student, the receipt of a book or small toy took on an even greater significance. EAch class felt a social connection with individuals half a world away, and they had an opportunity to improve their English language abilities in a dynamic and unconventional way.

Personal connection, investment and necessity are powerful motivators in language learning, after all. This alone would have made the Flat Stanley project a success in terms of my English class objectives, but the project also succeeded in promoting cultural understanding. Each of my 1st to 6th grade elementary students now have personal interest in the specific states and cities to which their Flat Stanley traveled — not to mention a connection with real American families far removed from the fictitious Hollywood world commonly portrayed in film and television.

To complete the project, I held a “Flat Stanley English Camp” with my students in order to process the contents of each Flat Stanley package, highlight famous landmarks, create a tracking map of Flat Stanley’s travels, write thank-you notes to new American friends, hold a geography bee based on student-selected “facts to remember,” and of course, practice English.  Collectively, our Flat Stanleys traveled to thirty states and visited people aged four to 104.

Upon reflection, I have found the Flat Stanley project to be my most rewarding activity so far in Korea. It facilitated a true exchange between two very different nations by teaching my students about the U.S. while simultaneously exposing my friends to Korean culture.

I am grateful for the opportunity to build upon the knowledge that my students already had about America and American culture, and hope that cultural exchange projects like Flat Stanley continue to give them a sense of the heterogeneity of our world, not to mention a strong conviction that people in foreign countries really are not that different from themselves. At the elementary education level, students may not be able to express their learning in these terms or list off all the names of the cities, states, and landmarks that Flat Stanley visited (though they remember more geography than one might expect). Rather, it is an important time in their lives for forming impressions of life in other corners of the world and developing an insatiable curiosity for learning.

Learning English calls for learning more about the cultures of English-speaking peoples as well. This is what foreign language teachers can and should capitalize on. Creative projects like Flat Stanley can raise the students’ level of interest in the classroom and foster essential intercultural understanding. I hope that my students will keep their Flat Stanley projects to look back on when they are older — when they will have a higher capacity for analysis and a higher proficiency in the English language.

If you would like to organize a similar Flat Stanley project and see additional material from my Woncheon Elementary School project, please contact the author at the_color9@msn.com.