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She puts nature in nurture
Portal’s award-winning STEM teacher teaches teamwork, science standards
Bulloch County Teacher of the Year Stephanie Hodges gives Portal Elementary School fourth grader C.J. Henderson, 11, some one-on-one attention on a classroom project combining the Thanksgiving holiday and learning the engineering design process. - photo by By SCOTT BRYANT/staff

Whether guiding work for this week's WinterFest or her longer-range Monarch Recovery Garden project, Stephanie Hodges, 2019-20 state Conservation Teacher of the Year and Bulloch County's contender for 2021 Georgia Teacher of the Year, melds nature and technology with the nurturing of children.

“Now remember, we have to cooperate and work together,” she told a class of Portal Elementary School first-graders Tuesday morning.

It was time to trade the yellow crayons they had used to paint the sun for the blue ones meant for ice floes.

The children sat of the floor of Hodges’ STEM classroom, working in little teams to create crayon-and-collage habitats for their stick-on reindeer. Reindeer have been the first grade’s animal to read about and study for the PES WinterFest Family Literacy Night, which involves all the school’s teachers and grade levels. It’s 5-7:30 p.m. Thursday, funded by a $1,000 grant from the Bulloch County Foundation for Public School Education.

Families who attend get to play games created by students at each grade level around various animals that live in wintry habitats, penguin bowling for example. Most of the games are also geared to specific Georgia Standards of Excellence for learning.

Not surprisingly, since she is reputed to be the most successful grant application writer among the school district’s teachers, Hodges has the lead in that project. In the past 18 years she has brought more than $36,000 to her school, with one-third of that coming from the local foundation.

But other skills were in evidence as she demonstrated how to paint a reindeer habitat one step a time. Using one of the new Promethean electronic boards that the school system is placing in classrooms throughout the county, she drew a bold yellow sun, colored the ocean around the floes a deeper blue, and drew the horizon line in gray, making a snowy expanse of the white space. Following each step, the children drew theirs on paper.


Life and science

“It doesn’t have to be perfect,” she told them, and “Make it your own.”

Besides learning those life concepts, the children were learning what a habitat is, placing the reindeer in its climate with a food source.

When Hodges asked what reindeer like to eat, one little girl confidently answered, “lichen,” and other children indicated they knew how to spell it. They got crinkly craft-paper shreds to represent lichen on their habitat pictures.

Answering another question, the first-graders also knew that reindeer are mammals.

"I try to tie everything to a standard,” Hodges said, explaining how the games for WinterFest tie to the state standards for science, as well as literacy and math.

As Portal Elementary's STEM enrichment teacher, she works with all of the school's students, from prekindergarten through fifth grade. STEM’s component subjects are science, technology, engineering and math, as posters in her classroom remind us.


Monarch Garden

The Monarch Recovery Garden, a project she launched at the beginning of this school year after research last summer, became a centerpiece for her applications for county and state Teacher of the Year and the statewide Conservation Teacher of the Year award she already received from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.

"In the last few years up to 90% of the monarch butterfly population is gone, so if that continues, the monarch will be gone," Hodges said after class Tuesday. "There are lots of reasons why, but I think providing more habitat for them and especially the host plant, the milkweed, plays a major part in helping their numbers recover."

She foresees this addition to the outdoor classroom as a recovery spot for people, too.

"I want it to be a place where we can go outside and learn science and experiment and conduct investigations, but I also want it to be a place for the students and the faculty and staff where you can just go and relax and just enjoy being outside, enjoy nature,” she said.

As with past projects, she has called on other teachers throughout the school, as well as outside resources. She consulted Doris Thompson of Thompson’s Garden at Brooklet and Karen Smith of Southern Native Plantings in Newington for knowledge of Georgia native plants attractive to monarch butterflies and other pollinators.

As soon as school started, students began learning how to identify monarch butterflies and other things about them. They illustrated what they learned with paintings, dioramas and Lego models.

Then Hodges teamed up with the school’s art teacher, Autumn Horton, who taught a unit around the Day of the Dead celebration, during which families in Mexico honor deceased loved ones Nov. 1-2.

“It was just such an awesome project for us to do together, to be able to tie it together, because she didn't know when the monarchs migrate, that they actually arrive in Mexico during the same time that they're celebrating the Day of the Dead, and I really didn't know much about the Day of the Dead until we started looking at this together,” Hodges said.

More recently, during her classes, students painted a wall that will help define the Monarch Garden. Materials for making stepping stones are on hand, and the organic compost is expected to arrive after New Year’s.


Loves the outdoors

Hodges has taught, always in elementary schools, for 28 years. After growing up on a farm in Screven County, she attained her Bachelor of Science in early childhood education from Georgia Southern University in 1991 and taught one year in Burke County. For 27 years now she has taught in Bulloch County, first at Julia P. Bryant Elementary School, and for 19 years at Portal Elementary.

Previously she was a regular social studies and science teacher some years and other years taught multiple subjects in a self-contained classroom. Three years ago, in January 2017, she became STEM teacher at the assignment of Dr. Laurie Mascolo, who was then PES principal but is now at Mattie Lively Elementary.

"I told Ms. Mascolo when she gave me that position I was 50 years old and happier than I've ever been,” Hodges said, choking up a little as she talked about it. "I love it. I am passionate about science, and especially outside, and it gives me a chance to do that.”

Even before she was the STEM teacher, many of her projects involved the school’s outdoor classroom.


Previous awards

First awarded an Outdoor Classroom Grant by the Georgia Department of Education in 2002, Hodges was recognized in 2007 as Georgia Magnolia Midlands Youth Science and Technology Teacher of the Year.

Her peers have selected her as Portal Elementary School Teacher of the Year three times: for 2003-04, for 2017-18, and again last spring.

Hodges received the Bulloch County Teacher of the Year award in November, in advance for 2021 so as to be eligible for state and national honors. Her application was submitted to the state competition hosted by the Georgia Department of Education before the Dec. 2 deadline, and the state winner will be announced in May.

In her application, she proposed outdoor learning as an antidote to what some experts have called “Nature Deficit Disorder” as screen time has replaced time outside for many children.

But she also noted “user-friendly technology tools that can enhance students learning and encourage them to do outside,” including digital cameras to collect and document evidence, digital weather stations, and a number of specific tablet or smartphone apps.

“What I have noticed is she is very passionate about teaching kids about science and technology. …,” said Dr. Carolyn Vasilatos, who became PES principal last summer. “Her room is a place where all of the kids love to go. It’s a lot of fun in there, it’s very engaging, and they have the opportunity to do a variety of activities.”

Hodges and her husband, supermarket manager Billy Hodges, have one daughter, Hattie Brannen, school nurse at Portal Middle High, and one son, Brigham Hodges, a nursing home administrator in Atlanta. Their first grandchild, Creek, was born three weeks ago to Hattie and Grant Brannen.



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