Music, Literacy & Dale Hubert's Flat Stanley Project

Ghenady Meirson
Submitted: Tue, November 6, 2012 - 11:25am EST
This 2009 interview with Dale Hubert explores creative ways to reach children and encourage interest in literacy. He is the creator of Flat Stanley Project, now an international phenomenon.

PL: Before you became a schoolteacher, you had a music career. Tell us about it.

DH: I knew from a very young age that I wanted to be a teacher, but I had several other interests along the way. I grew up when folk music was making a resurgence and I was drawn to the guitar. I began with no skills and through perseverance and understanding parents I slowly learned the fingering of chords and began playing songs that were important to me. After university I went to Europe and while in Spain I saw a street singer and I figured I was as good as he was, so I bought a guitar and sang in the street. I made enough to pay for food and rent with some left over, then got a job singing in a bar.
I did that for a few months then teamed up with a duo from England and we lived in a van and sang in the streets from the south of Spain to Sweden and as far west as Crete. After a year I returned home and performed in the lounge circuit in Manitoba and northern Ontario. I did this for a couple of years and along the way developed skills in handling crowds that would later on come in handy in the classroom. No matter how unruly the students, they don't compare to a drunken crowd of loggers and miners from northern Ontario!

PL: As an educator, how do you ignite students' imagination?

DH: The first thing I try to do is build a feeling of safety and community. I tell the students that the most important word they will ever learn from me is YET. Then I tell them that some grade 3 students already think that they can't read or can't do math and I tell them that perhaps they can't - yet. As soon as we add the word "yet" to the statement, it opens a world of possibilities. It's OK to not be able to do things yet. When I began learning to play the guitar I was very unmusical and had very limited natural talent but since I was intrinsically motivated to succeed, I stuck at it, made the effort, and eventually achieved my goals. I believe the key to success in the classroom is through offering authentic and meaningful opportunities to develop skills. For example, when teaching graphing in math I'll have the students graph data that is important to them such as baseball stats or favourite hobbies. It's been a long time since I was a student, but I often ask myself what I would have liked my teachers to have allowed me to do, then I try to manipulate the curriculum to allow that to happen. I've taught special ed, Grade 6, and Grade 3 and for last couple of years have been team-teaching with an excellent teacher, Zillah Moss, in a 3-4 split class with 2 teachers and 44 students in one room. Because the students are intrinsically motivated, classroom management issues rarely arise.

PL: Talk about Flat Stanley. What was the aha moment?

DH: I'd taught Grade 6 for five years and had applied to teach Grade 3 for the first time. I wanted to find a way to develop literacy in an authentic and meaningful way. This was in 1994 and the World Wide Web was in its infancy. There was very little appropriate material available for 7 and 8 year olds, so I decided to create something. As a special ed teacher I'd invented an adaptive computer keyboard and written the software for it, so I was used to crafting my own materials. I came across a reference to Flat Stanley on a school's website and I thought I might be able to turn this storybook character into a traveling mutual friend that we could write about. I was hoping to arrange 8 or 10 exchanges for my students, but I planned to create a site that would allow others to share their experiences as well. I asked one of my former Grade 6 students to teacher me HTML coding and began the Flat Stanley Project. This was long before the social networking that's now so common, but I created a place for teachers to share ideas, a List of Participants, a Success Story section and a Picture Gallery. Eventually I was contacted by Jeff Brown, author of the original Flat Stanley story. Jeff was delighted with my efforts and the resurgence of interest in his book. The numbers of participants rose from 13 the first year to hundreds the next, then thousands a few years later and now millions of children are familiar with Flat Stanley as a world traveler and penpal. So rather than a single aha! moment, it's been a perpetual list of inspiring events and opportunities.

PL: Flat Stanley met important people in high places. Who are some of them?

DH: I enjoyed making contact with Jeff Brown. We became friends and he visited me and my family here in London, Ontario, and we stayed with his family in Connecticut. We remained friends until his death in 2003. But the little flat guy continued to make interesting friends in high places. Clint Eastwood took his daughter's Flat Stanley to the Academy Awards when he won the Oscar for Million Dollar Baby. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger took his son's Flat Stanley to work and appeared on late night talk shows with it. There have been many visits to the White House and Flat Stanley has been photographed with Carter, Clinton, Bush I and II and Obama as well as numerous governors and mayors. Scientists have taken the little flat guy to Antarctica to study penguins and to labs to conduct research and there have been several trips to space. Then there are the TV stars and movie actors. A reporter from In Style Magazine once told me that new celebrities didn't feel they'd quite "made it" until they'd been asked to host a Flat Stanley! One Flat Stanley that I treasure the most is one I sent to Pete Seeger, one of my idols, and "old Pete" returned it and had written on the back of it, "Kids, if YOU keep your sense of humor and reach out to other kids in ALL the world, and get them to reach out to you in their own way, there may be a human race here in another 100 years!" But the main support remains students in schools who are developing literacy skills and building community through Flat Stanley exchanges and I am overwhelmed at the interest in my Flat Stanley Project.

PL: What is next for Dale Hubert?

DH: What's next? Well, as the old saying goes, the future is one of the hardest things to predict. I've been a classroom teacher for 31 years, so retirement is in the fairly near future. I've continued to enjoy music and recently bought a mandolin to add to my mountain dulcimer, banjo and guitars, so I could spend a great deal of time improving my musical abilities. I recently earned my black belt in karate and could spend the rest of my life improving those skills. Over the last few years I've taken Flat Stanley with me on vacations to Scotland, England, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Egypt and Mexico and this March my father and I are planning on visiting the Galapagos Islands. I'd like to continue the Flat Stanley Project and to remain involved in education as I look for additional opportunities.

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