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Paper-thin globetrotter connects kids

Flat Stanley reading program looks forward and afar

By Thom Patterson

Ontario (Canada)
Clint Eastwood

(CNN) -- Flat Stanley: successful teacher, world traveler, goodwill ambassador and now Hollywood celebrity. Not bad for a tiny, thin guy made out of paper.

The paper cutout started a buzz on February 27 when actor/director Clint Eastwood carried him along on the red carpet at the Oscars.

But since 1995, hundreds of thousands of elementary school students worldwide have sent the character across the globe as part of the Flat Stanley Project, a reading program centered on paper cutouts of the title character from the 1964 children's book "Flat Stanley."

"In the book, by Jeff Brown, Stanley gets squashed flat by a falling bulletin board," said Dale Hubert, a Canadian third-grade teacher who created the Flat Stanley Project. "Stanley's parents rolled him up, put him in an envelope and mailed him to his friend in California. And that just seemed like a way of communicating that grade-three students might enjoy."

The program is designed to improve the reading and writing skills of elementary school students while they learn about new people and places. Students read the book, write new stories about Stanley and send them to other students in far-away classrooms.

The project ended its first year with 13 participating classrooms -- with Stanleys traveling in Ontario. It wasn't long before they spread to Hawaii, New York and Florida.

Ten years later, Stanleys have traveled as far afield as Afghanistan, Antarctica, Africa -- and even with astronauts aboard the space shuttle Discovery.

"I can remember that we sent a Flat Stanley to Australia and it came back and the people told us it had spent some time in a kangaroo's pouch," Hubert said.

Amanda Zych of Big Brothers Big Sisters in Cleveland, Ohio, calls Flat Stanley a valuable learning tool. "It helps kids get exposed to other walks of life that they may not have the opportunity to learn about." Zych works with after-school programs at Big Brothers Big Sisters and says about 300 children there have been receiving Flat Stanleys from students as far away as Florida and California.

"It definitely motivates them to try new experiences to talk to new people -- to try to break that shyness of making friends and meeting new people," said Zych, who has been with Big Brothers Big Sisters for about four years.

Stanley meets Oscar

Through his travels, Stanley has met thousands of new people, including many celebrities. President Bush and former President Bill Clinton have had their photos snapped with Stanley, as have singers Clay Aiken and Willie Nelson.

Hubert, 52, said Eastwood's Flat Stanley added to the project's Internet buzz. "The next day, several people sent me images of that, and congratulations on that," Hubert said.

Hubert's quarter-century of teaching has earned him three national awards. While teaching at Wilfrid Jury Elementary school in London, Ontario, Hubert runs the project, which receives Canadian government support through the Education Network of Ontario.

Flat Stanley also promotes forging new relationships, said educator Michael Marks of the National Education Association. "I do think Flat Stanley works because Flat Stanley has a family and what that teaches is that every child needs and must have a support system. I think it is wonderful that we use Flat Stanley to teach life-skills and to teach the value of reading -- not only because it's fun, but because it's fundamental as well."

For Lindsay, a student at Wilfrid, exchanging Flat Stanleys across long distances was memorable.

"When you came into the classroom in the morning and there was a Flat Stanley letter on your desk, it was really exciting," she said. "You could take the Flat Stanley places and then be able to tell the person who wrote you what you've done with their Flat Stanley. And then you made a Flat Stanley of your own to give them. It was really special that you could do that with someone."

Helping in hospitals

The project's latest focus puts Flat Stanleys in hospitals, to help children learn to face health trauma.

HeatherLynne Mowrey, a social worker at Delaware County Memorial Hospital in Drexel Hill, Pennsylvania, has been working with Stanley for more than two years.

"Kids end up in the emergency room for a variety of reasons, and if they don't know what's going on, it can be a very, very scary experience," Mowrey said. "Stanley provides an educational service in giving an idea of what it's like to be in the hospital. The children send Flat Stanley to me, I create a booklet for them showing them the hospital to try and to give them an idea of what the patients go through and what happens if you come to the hospital."

What's next for Stanley? Hubert is looking toward Asia. "Imagine if kids in Asia were to exchange Flat Stanleys with the West and develop a positive relationship with the kids back and forth," Hubert said. "And then, when these kids get a little bit older and maybe assume positions of authority in society, it might improve the way they look at each other and -- we've got Flat Stanley for world peace."

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