Flat Out Fun

This Maryland Teacher Modified a Classroom Classic to Stay Connected with her Kids

By Tamara Y. Jeffries

Every new school year brings challenges for teachers and parents alike – from finding the right backpack to navigating the after school pick-up line. But this year’s pandemic presents challenges of its own. Concerns over Covid-19 mean some students will be learning remotely. Older students have the tech and social skills to adapt to online instruction. But what about our youngest learners? How can teachers connect with pre-school students they only see on their screens? Teacher Jaime Bohannon has found a way: she went home with her students. Well, a version of her did, anyway.

Bohannon, a special needs teacher in Montgomery County, Maryland, is one of a growing number of teachers adapting a classic classroom project to help students stay engaged. The Flat Teacher Project is a new take on the Flat Stanley Project many of us remember from childhood. Based on the popular Flat Stanley children’s book series by Jeff Brown—which debuted in 1964 and is still going strong—the original Flat Stanley Project was created in 1995 by Dale Hubert, a Canadian third-grade teacher. For decades, students have been coloring cutouts of the book’s main character, Stanley, and mailing them to people around the world.

The real magic happens when the recipients of these paper Stanleys photograph their Stanleys in various locations and mail them back to the senders with notes about the Stanleys’ experiences. Teachers have incorporated Flat Stanleys into geography lessons and used his adventures as writing prompts. The little man is quite the traveler! He’s shown up for photo ops everywhere from the Bronx Zoo to the Egyptian Pyramids. He’s visited President Obama in the White House and traveled south of the border to Mexico, Peru and El Salvador with Colin Powell.

These days, teachers are making Flat Stanleys of their own. Bohannon was inspired to create her Flat Teacher after seeing a post by a fellow educator on Instagram. She immediately got to work printing out copies of a cartoon likeness of herself she’d created with the free Bitmoji app, complete with a purple sweater and her curly puff of a ponytail. Bohannon laminated the cartoon selfies and mailed one to each child in her class. This low-tech activity is also perfectly suited to little ones. Not only were her students thrilled to receive envelopes addressed especially to them, Flat Ms. Bohannon also encourages students to use their imagination and take a break from their screens.

Bohannon hopes her Flat Teacher will help her form an emotional connection with her students. Like many educators, she knows this bond is essential for children’s academic success. Especially now, when so many young students feel uncertain about the world.

Even if they don’t articulate their worries, children often pick up on the anxiety of adults around them. They may overhear news reports about police, protests and the pandemic and wonder how the turmoil will affect them. Child development experts emphasize that students can’t process new information and skills when they feel upset or overwhelmed. “We know that kids learn best when they feel safe and secure; when they feel anxious and aroused and uncomfortable, learning stops,” Laura Phillips, a neuropsychologist with the Child Mind Institute, told Education Week.

Caring educators provide a sense of security for their young students. But when school is just a series of boxes on a screen, teachers like Bohannon must think outside the box. “Students need structure to feel secure,” says Bohannon, who has been teaching for 12 years. “But things also need to be a little bit spontaneous so students want to come to ‘school.’”

Along with her Flat Teacher, Bohannan sent home a list of fun activities for her students to try. “I picked six things they could do — things where they wouldn’t have to spend any money and that they could do independently,” she says. She prompted her students to build a fort with Flat Ms. Bohannan, read her a book or enjoy a snack together. Many of the Flat Ms. Bohannons got quite a workout. “One mother told me that ‘I’ went with them everywhere during the first week,” she says.

The project helped Bohannon bond with her students, too. “I told parents it would help me feel connected if they could send me photos,” she says. In turn, she used the photos to spark discussions in class.

“I really prioritize the connection with my students,” Bohannon adds. “I’m reminded of a TED Talk where educator Rita Pierson said children don’t learn from people they don’t like. I keep that quote in my head and my heart all the time.” 

The Flat Stanley Project isn’t just for teachers. Try these variations for your own flat-out fun.

  • Flat-ish: Create a “Flat Stanley” version of you or your child from paper, felt or foam. Add yarn hair and design clothing out of fabric remnants for an entire flat wardrobe of fun.

  • Teachers’ Lounge: Help your child make flat versions of all their teachers to keep near their at-home workspace. Dollar store staples like construction paper, crayons, markers and safety scissors will help turn this into a full-fledged art project.

  • Selfies for Seniors: Encourage your child to make a flat selfie to send to grandparents or other relatives. This feel-good mail will be a welcomed delivery for elders in nursing homes or in quarantine.

  • Paper Pals: Is your child missing his or her playmates? Have the kids exchange flat self-portraits. Boost their writing skills by encouraging them to write letters describing their day or an experience they had. 

You can find templates of the original Flat Stanley and friends at http://www.flatstanleyproject.com/templates-bw.html.

Other project ideas can be found at www.teacherspayteachers.com.

Tamara Jeffries, a former magazine editor, teaches journalism at Bennett College, a historically Black women’s college in North Carolina.