By Candace Morrow
Photos By Tamma Smith
Kim Lester calls the morning LEGO meeting to order.
“Ladies and gentlemen: You’ve just been hired to work as technical writers and master builders for LEGO,” said the Columbus State University alumna to her fourth- and fifth-grade student writers.
The “Yesses!” “Whoo-hoos!” and “Yays!” erupt from one manila folder-constructed cubicle to the next.
Today’s classroom assignment: Study LEGO shapes, colors and sizes then create instructional manuals using detailed descriptions.
“I love LEGOs,” shouted one builder.
“This is so much fun,” said another.
This type of student reaction and innovative teaching is what led to Lester becoming a top 10 finalist in the 2016 Georgia Teacher of the Year program.
“At any given moment, my students may be found running around the school snapping pictures as photojournalists; creating original characters through puppetry arts; or researching local and global destinations,” said Lester, Ed.D., ’15, who teaches at St. Elmo Center for the Gifted. “We are an active community of learners. I want my kids to learn to look closer, ask thoughtful questions and participate in the world around them.”
Her teaching style is educational, engaging and exploratory.
One moment Lester’s students are role-playing as scriptwriters in a classroom exercise called Shared Journal.
The next moment they recast into international explorers and storytellers to hone sensory detail skills in writing — a technique inspired by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek.
“The coolest part about coming to class here is that you never know what to expect,” said 10-year-old fifth-grader Kendall Anderson. “She always has us doing different kinds of activities that just keep class interesting.”
Lester values her students’ writing projects and ensures their work publishes in classroom journals and websites as well.
Before teaching, Lester reported and wrote for Tampa-area newspapers. She moved to Muscogee County during 2001 and started teaching grades first through fifth at Downtown Elementary, South Columbus Elementary and Britt David Magnet Academy.
Now at St. Elmo, Lester became teacher of the year at her home school twice, and during 2013, honored Muscogee County’s Teacher of the Year.
“One of the most rewarding milestones in my career was becoming an active participant in some of the good work of the Muscogee Educational Excellence Foundation, a community-based group whose purpose is to support quality teachers in Muscogee County,” Lester said. “I’ve been given the opportunity to share my thoughts with many of our community leaders who truly care about educators.”
Lester earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of South Florida and a master’s degree in education from the University of Florida.
She earned a doctorate in education from CSU, which also named her “Outstanding Doctoral Student of the Year” during 2014.
“Kim has a passion for developing collaborative and caring community-based classroom environments, particularly through writing,” said Jan Burcham, department chair of teacher education and professor of early childhood education at CSU. “She is always willing to do whatever is needed to make sure her students are learning at high levels and developing as well-rounded people. She is truly a special teacher.”
The university’s doctorate in education program allows candidates to work with a community of scholars to improve teaching and learning at all levels. The program is designed so candidates can continue working while completing their degrees.
“It has been a joy to work with Kim throughout her doctoral program,” Burcham said. “Achieving a doctorate opens many doors for educators to advance their careers. We are happy that Kim is now teaching as a part-time faculty member in the Department of Teacher Education.”
Whether teaching on the elementary or collegiate level, Lester pushes her students to use their imagination and creativity in writing.
“As educators, we are constantly helping students make sense of the many bits and pieces of a vast curriculum we toss their way in any given day,” said Lester. “It doesn’t matter how old the students may be in the classroom. Teachers have to bring all the creativity and professional knowledge to the table and make our schools collectively more supportive learning environments for our students and our teachers.”
CSU alumna and local educator Kim Lester is an avid Mr. Potato Head collector.
From “Star Wars” to “The Wizard of Oz” characters, the iconic toy serves as a classroom icebreaker for students the first week of school.
“To gauge where my students are in their writing, I ask them to create their own Mr. Potato Head at home using an organic potato and describe how this particular potato reflects who they are,” said Lester. “My students really get into this project, which is also a great way for us to build community in the classroom.”