On the wall of an office at Corunna Public School’s Nellie Reed Elementary, a painted wooden sign hangs above a desk with a simple yet powerful message:
The sign belongs to Shannon Cooper-Toma, the school’s principal and budding author who displays it as a decorative discussion piece and as a symbol of the personal mantra that guides her life. By day, she is a dedicated educator; and by night, she is one half of a dynamic author duo. The other half is Tracy Foster, a fellow alumna of SVSU’s Master of Arts in Teaching (M.A.T.) program. The pair have been rubbing elbows with celebrities while traveling the state in search of the next adventure that could positively impact a child’s education.
For a couple of Cardinals, it’s a dream that all started with a turtle.
That turtle is named Benson, and he is the star of two children’s books Cooper-Toma and Foster authored. “Benson’s Adventures in Michigan” and “Benson’s Seasonal Adventures in Michigan” take readers around the state, showcasing notable and beautiful locations. Each title follows Benson and his buddies as they unearth and uncover best-kept secrets from destinations such as Mackinac Island, Munising, Petoskey and Traverse City. It’s a surreal experience both authors have sought since they were as old as the children featured in their stories.
“We’ve both wanted to be authors since we were little girls,” said Cooper-Toma, a 2006 SVSU graduate. “We wanted to create a project that students were passionate about, inspiring them to travel with their families and provide opportunities to see what Michigan has to offer.”
The idea for the books was created by happenstance. Foster, a kindergarten teacher, does photography for district marketing materials and thought it would be a good idea to take a handful of students to Saugatuck for a sea life-themed photo shoot. She and Cooper-Toma loaded up a few students and headed west.
Some of the students had never seen a Great Lake. Once they arrived, the group was astounded by the sheer size and beauty of Lake Michigan. Many students thought they had arrived at the ocean. Cooper-Toma and Foster took extra time to let the kids run around and explore. On the drive home, they discussed how fun it would be to take students to places throughout Michigan in the summer.
And just like that, Benson was born — well, hatched.
“We wanted to create a project that would inspire families to explore our great state with their children,” said Foster, a 2001 graduate. “Travel builds background knowledge and vocabulary and allows students to dream big.”
As educators, they wanted to create a book with a purpose beyond just entertainment. So they looked at the curriculum and built in elements of social studies, math and science. They also had Benson tell his stories through postcard format, a simple yet powerful medium for young readers that encourages children to write about their own adventures.
To help enhance the learning experience inside and outside the classroom, the two also made companion parent and teacher guides that are available for free on their website.
“Our goal was to write a book that would be so engaging for students that they would want to write and read even more,” Foster said. “A lot of the teachers say they haven’t seen their students so engaged in writing as they’ve been when they used our books. That’s pretty exciting.”
One teacher with first-hand experience with the books is another SVSU alumna, Melissa Princinsky, a second-grade teacher at Elsa Meyer Elementary of Corunna Public Schools. Princinsky, who earned a bachelor’s degree in education in 1998 and a master’s degree in teaching in 2001 at SVSU, has used the first book in her classroom since it was published. She asks her students to write Benson about their own adventures.
“The students love it because they can make a connection to the story,” she said. “A lot of them have had experiences across Michigan and have traveled to the places in the story, or they know the children featured in the book. That personal connection is crucial in terms of helping students engage with the book.”
The authors’ focus on student engagement and their passion for literacy were honed, in part, thanks to their experiences at SVSU. As literary specialists, Cooper-Toma and Foster focused particularly on the at-risk reader, something they kept in mind while writing.
“What I loved most about my time at SVSU is that we always had that goal in mind,” Cooper-Toma said. “‘How can we engage those at-risk readers?’ It’s something everyone in the program is very passionate about.”
One of the strategies they used throughout their books was incorporating short and interesting “Did You Know?” facts throughout because those readers respond well to informational text — something they learned while in SVSU’s M.A.T. program.
“The passion SVSU gave me to help create that spark in children for reading and writing has been foundational to me,” Foster said. “The professors share their passion for literacy and that gets you excited to come back and use those strategies within your classroom.”
Cooper-Toma and Foster have also applied that passion to the philanthropic sector in the creation of Benson’s Literacy Foundation, a nonprofit organization they founded. The organization aims to donate its books — and many others — to Michigan classrooms, community organizations and summer camps.
“If through the foundation we can get our books in the hands of students, then we can get those students who can’t travel to these great Michigan locations to at least travel through the pages of a book and dream big while reading,” Cooper-Toma said.
While they continue to encourage their young readers to keep dreaming, they also live that motto. The authors have met Michigan State University men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo and were invited to the New York City set of ABC’s “Good Morning America.”
ABC News chief meteorologist Ginger Zee, a frequent visitor of some of the locations the book highlights, is a fan of their “Dream Big” message.
While backstage at the set, they met Robin Roberts and Harry Connick Jr., the sort of star-struck experience a principal and kindergarten teacher from rural Michigan wouldn’t have expected when they were brainstorming ideas and laying out pictures on a couch.
“We never could have imagined all of our dreams would begin to come true through Benson,” Foster said of their creation. “But we knew we had enough determination that we weren’t going to stop until all of our dreams were met.”