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People & Places Fall 2016

Michigan educators ‘dream big’ and chronicle their adventures, teacher gives life to student, paraeducator writes book to promote unity.
Published: September 13, 2016

Michigan Beauty

Educators ‘Dream Big’ And Chronicle Their Adventures 

By Clare McLaughlin

Michigan is known for natural beauty—from the Great Lakes and the state’s largest freshwater spring (Kitch-iti-kipi) to sandy beaches and pristine forests. Two educators from Corruna Public Schools are among the state’s lesser-known treasurers. They’ve logged more than 9,000 miles, in 37 different locations across their beloved home state. 

When they go, Tracy Foster and Shannon Cooper-Toma include Michigan students who are only just beginning to discover the endless opportunities within their own backyard. 

The duo met in 2014 after their neighboring school districts stratified. Early on, they knew their friendship would last. Within a year, they became travel partners. Eventually, their Michigan discoveries grew into a work of fiction titled Benson’s Adventures

The story follows Benson, a fictional turtle who uses postcards to transport readers to various destinations. Some include the Michigan Capitol building, a national forest, even a chocolate factory. 

Recently, the educators took kindergarten students on a field trip to the small resort town of Saugatuck. The students’ enthusiastic reaction and thirst for further discovery helped to inspire the book. Foster and Cooper-Toma hope their writing will inspire other Michigan youth to plan bright futures. 

Each page offers fun facts, recipes, and prompts for further discussion about each location, along with photos of students exploring the locations for the first time. This book is not simply a tale of a turtle. It’s a diary of real-life adventures.  

“Taking learning outside the classroom unlocks a whole new way of learning,” explains Foster. “If you see something through a picture it’s beautiful, but if you see something in real life it is so much more powerful.” 

Foster and Cooper-Toma hope to place a book in the hands of every Michigan student for free. 

“We want to inspire all children to look at all the opportunities that our state has to offer,” says Cooper-Toma. 

They also hope Benson’s Adventures will help teachers appreciate the value of outside learning and why educators must have an unrelenting belief in students’ abilities.

To learn more, visit

A Perfect Match 

Teacher Gives Life To Student 

By Brenda Álvarez

Teachers are known to buy school supplies for their students. They also reach deep into their pockets to buy breakfast or lunch when a student comes to school hungry. But Jodi Schmidt, a third-grade teacher at Oakfield Elementary School in Wisconsin, went beyond measure, and donated a kidney to 8-year-old Natasha Fuller, an Oakfield first grader whom Schmidt had never taught. 

Before receiving her new kidney, Natasha missed school three days a week so that she could undergo dialysis, she also couldn’t play in pools, eat bananas, chocolate, or Doritos, or enjoy a sleepover. 

Although she was on a donor list, she would sometimes get sick, and her name would be taken off. Eventually, Natasha’s need for a new kidney became critical. 

“I knew Natasha was sick. I taught her older sister years ago,” says Schmidt, who says she wasn’t thinking about donating a kidney until one day in December when she was driving home from school before winter break. “Oh my goodness. I want to do this,” she remembers herself saying. 

After talking the decision over with her husband and family, Schmidt quietly underwent medical treatments to determine if she was a match for Natasha. Three months later, she learned the match was “perfect.”

“I was so excited. When I got the phone call it was 2:55 p.m., and my students were out at recess. I had to tell someone. I went flying into my principal’s office and said, ‘Oh my gosh! I’m a match!’” 

The next day, Schmidt presented Natasha’s grandmother, Chris Burleton, with a gift box. Inside the box was a note reading, “It’s a match!”  There was also a kidney disease awareness ribbon printed on the paper. Burleton, told Milwaukee’s “WISN Channel 12 News,” “I was just shocked when I opened up the box, just amazed, speechless.”

Schmidt was excited, too. “I had to teach the whole day thinking, ‘Wow, I get to change someone’s life today.’ It was amazing!”

The successful surgeries took place in May. When Schmidt saw Natasha a few days after the surgery, Natasha’s first words were a simple, “Hi, Mrs. Schmidt,” recalls the third-grade teacher. “She looked awesome. Her color, her spirit, and her smile looked fantastic,” says Schmidt. 

Schmidt hopes her story will inspire others to “Just think about it,” and consider becoming a donor. “I know a lot of people think ‘There’s no way I can do this…it’s so scary,’ but it’s not. It doesn’t have to be scary and so many people are waiting for help.”

Love Your Locks

Paraeducator Writes Book To Promote Unity 

By Brenda Álvarez

In her poem, “Human Family,” Maya Angelou wrote, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.” The work celebrates cultural differences and emphasizes unity. 

A similar message is conveyed in the new book, Pigtails, which is aimed at helping children—particularly young girls—understand their differences and similarities.

Mariama Z. Whack, the book’s author, works as a paraeducator in the William Penn School District in Lansdowne, Penn. She is a member of the William Penn Education Association. Her daughter Harper Rose inspired the book. “Her hair was getting longer,” Whack says, “and I searched for books on hair and I couldn’t find one so...I wrote one,” she says.

Colorfully illustrated, Pigtails features five girls from different cultural backgrounds. They each tell a story about an event or activity, and wear pigtails in different shades and styles.

The goal of the book is to help girls ages 1 to 10 feel good about themselves. The common hairstyle helps readers understand that despite the girls’ different backgrounds and interests, they also share similarities. Whack wants Pigtails to be used as a tool to help promote equality and cultural awareness among girls. She also hopes the book will help to shape the way girls perceive themselves and others, which could lead to less bullying and more self-confidence. 

During author readings, Whack says she hears girls say things like, “I wish my hair were different” and “I know I don’t have good hair.” 

The narrative of “good hair,” (a phrase with complicated historical roots in the Black community, which is sometimes used to describe hair that is naturally straight, wavy, or loosely curled) and “bad hair” continues to exist, says Whack. “Society plays a huge role in how little girls feel about their hair—good hair versus bad hair,” she says, and references the song “Sorry” from Beyoncé, which includes a lyric about “Becky with the good hair.”

“All those different comments on hair…create low self esteem,” Whack explains. “I tell girls to not apologize for who you are...what you can do is love the hair you have, love the skin you have, and embrace it. Own your look.”   

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