Helping Students Through their Hardest Years

UNC Asheville Alumni, Math Teacher, Homework Diner Mentor...

When we first began the Homework Diner program just a year and a half ago in Erwin, Enka and Asheville Middle Schools, we knew that it would uplift students and families by providing a safe space to gather, learn and connect. We couldn’t have imagined just how many amazing community members we would meet along the way--entrepreneurs able to take an hour from their morning to visit a middle school and work with a student on their math homework, a waitress who studied history in college and wants to help and share her knowledge with young students, teams of parents ready to roll up their sleeves and take a few hours of their time each week to meet with other parents and children at the cafeteria table around a warm meal. That was certainly what we envisioned and are humbled by the progress that’s been made since starting this program in the spring of 2016.
Ms. Hodges, a math teacher and girls basketball coach at Erwin Middle has been involved the entire time. She is one of those people.  A 37 year-old UNC Asheville alumni from Mount Airy, NC, Ms. Hodges has quite a journey to share in the years leading up to her fifth year now at Erwin Middle School. She moved to the area in  2004 to study art at UNC Asheville yet wasn’t decided on a career in that field and moved on to N.C. State after graduation to explore a new path, studying Human Rights Law. 
“I was in Ghana for a couple months and was getting ready to go into the Peace Corps and start going to law school,” she shared, “and then life happened and I ended up staying in the area. So I thought, well what can I do that’s still impactful and making a difference in other people’s lives in an important way, so I decided I would teach.” She returned to her alma mater at UNCA to study math as a post-baccalaureate student with a teaching licensure, and discovered the possibility of lateral entry one semester while student teaching at Erwin Middle. According to the N.C. State Board of Education, “Lateral entry allows qualified individuals to obtain a teaching position and begin teaching right away, while obtaining a professional educator's license as they teach.” She decided to take the test and she passed just in time for a teaching position to open at the middle school, where she applied and was accepted as a seventh grade math teacher. 
An actively involved teacher both with her students and in the community, Hodges takes a few moments to talk with me in the school cafeteria on a Monday afternoon as students trickle in for the weekly after-school Homework Diner. “I joke and say that in my spare time I teach, because I do so many other things. If you want to be impactful, you can be very impactful as a teacher, but if you want to make greater change you’ve got to find other ways.” As a teacher who has dedicated her time to showing up and offering after-school tutoring to her students and parents since the inception of the Homework Diner program in the school, she shares why she finds it so important for the community. Being the first person in her family to attend and graduate college, she says she knows what it’s like to live in a community with fewer resources. She knows what it’s like to not have money and feel like there’s no way you’re going to go on and do anything your heart desires, as all of the adults tell you when you're small. She knows what it’s like to have only one parent in your house, much different from the standard American family you see projected in books and movies. 
“If you think about middle school, even the name, the middle, these are typically our toughest years,” she shares, looking around the cafeteria. “These kids don’t have a lot of strong allies and need positive people in their life to say ‘You’re going to get through this. It’s just a stepping stone in the road. It’s fine.’and then they need people to look at them and say, ‘you can graduate high school.” It’s a big deal for them, she shares. It seems small but all of these moments affect someone’s day, their week, their life as they grow into adulthood deciding what they’ll do in their careers and what they feel capable of doing. “To have someone standing in front of them that they think is a cool person and seems like they’ve got it together to say, I was in your shoes at one point in time. The world is out there. You really can do anything.”

Erwin Middle + UNCA STEAM Studio Collaborate

Currently enrolled in graduate school and working with her eighth grade students on a collaborative project with her alma mater’s newer makerspace and arts/education studio on Riverside Drive, STEAM. Created in part by a significant grant of $400,000 from Duke Energy, the STEAM studio is one of many across the nation in “a nationally-known movement that integrates science, technology, engineering, art and math to create new technologies and solutions to modern problems. Including the arts in the traditional STEM model (science, technology, engineering, math) makes new technologies more developed and versatile, and allows for real-world application of art and design,” according to their website. Hodges reached out to Brent Skidmore, Co-Founder of the Steam Studio and UNC Asheville Associate Professor of Art, about bringing a group of her kids in to work on a project she had dreamed up in response to statistics that didn’t settle well with her. 
“I reached out to Brent and said when you’re looking at the data of test scores and growth when talking about proficiency, we’re missing the mark with some of the highest kids. We’re not growing some of our more advanced kids. We’re not pushing them beyond their comfort zone, so how do we do that?” she said as she she tapped the table with the side of her hand, staring out at the Erwin Middle baseball field. So I said, I have this idea. I’m going to give them this project. We took a photocopy of Mr. Thompson’s planner with the Erwin ‘E’ on it and I gave them the copy of that picture and said, ‘Your task is to turn this into a 6 foot by 4 foot ‘E’. Go!’ They did all the measurements then I told them to divide it into 27 equal pieces so they did that and each child created their own unique tessellation, which connects it to the common core and the standards. They also wrote a paper about what a tessellation is and researched M.C. Escher and how tessellations were used in other people’s artwork. Then they took their individual designs and put it on the two dimensional prototype they had drawn.” 

It's the Little Things...

The next step in their project is to have Mr. Skidmore or Sarah Sanders, a UNCA alumna and the University's Engineering Lab Manager, to come in, and take these two-dimensional ideas and translate them into three-dimensional ideas using computer software. It’s through projects like these, that she pushes her students further and their appreciation is clear as she bounces back and forth from table to table at the Homework Diners, answering math questions from the kids and their mothers and fathers. “It’s challenging because some of these kids come from really horrible situations and you don’t know what happened to them last night or if they had anything to eat, if their parents  were there or just if someone has looked at them and said, ‘I think you’re awesome and I love you.’ or anything like that. So on top of that they have all these challenges from the outside world and they’re in middle school and if they don’t speak the common language and you’re teaching them math….that’s hard.”
Ms. Hodges certainly doesn’t let the difficult situations discourage her. Her presence in these families lives is evident. I asked her how she found the time to do so much and she said, “It’s the little things that we should not take for granted. Be that positive force. If you don’t speak someone’s language, smile that them. It’s not that bad today. Today is going to be okay. I’m going to make it through this," she shares, thinking through an affirmation process as she speaks. "And I’ve had a lot of good response from that, like kind letters and notes telling me that those things helped someone get through their day. Those are just the students who chose to share, so I can only imagine the impact on those that didn't. So I think if you’ve done that then you’ve done your job, right?”

United Way Middle School Success: Learn More & Get Involved

Learn more about our weekly Homework Diner Programs as part of our overarching Middle School Success initative, working to provide resources to students, families, teachers and schools to ensure children in Asheville and Buncombe County have what they need to continue their education through highscool beyond. Take a peek into the STEAM Studio located in the RAMP Studio off Riverside Drive. And please, if you feel called, get involved by signing up to spend a few hours one afternoon with the children in our community through our volunteer center Hands-On Asheville Buncombe.