It's after lunch, and Harlem Middle School sixth-grader Jonathan Grimsley actually volunteers to read his essay about his pet rock, Rock Bottom.
"He's funny and loves to tell people about the Stone Age," Grimsley reads. "He likes rock music and his dream is for someone to take him to see the Rocky Mountains."
His teacher, Valery Dinkins, listens attentively. It's her pupils' first assignment of the year, and Jonathan has hit a home run.
It's that ability to generate excitement about learning that has earned the sixth-grade communication skills teacher the title of Columbia County's teacher of the year.
"I want to be the best teacher I can be for my students and instill in them my love of learning and respect for learning and what they can accomplish," said Dinkins, a seven-year teaching veteran.
She is most noted for operating the poetry coffee house From the Heart. The daylong event is the culminating activity for the poetry unit. During the unit, pupils develop a poetry portfolio, and while at the coffee house they read their poems aloud. She seeks donations from area grocery stores to provide drinks and snacks. Local celebrities also have been known to drop by to read their favorite poems.
"It shows them that poetry can be fun for everybody," Dinkins said. Dinkins, 28, received her undergraduate degree from Augusta State University and completed her Master of Education degree from the University of Georgia in 2000. Last year she earned the distinction of being a National Board Certified Teacher and has completed the course work to become a support specialist. That addition to her teaching certificate allows her to mentor other teachers, which she is doing this year. She also is attending Augusta State to earn her education-leadership specialist degree.
Dinkins began her teaching career at Spirit Creek Middle School, then taught in Jackson County before moving back to the area and teaching at Hephzibah Middle School. She has begun her third year at Harlem Middle.
"I went to school in Columbia County, that's where my heart is and that's where I needed to be," said Dinkins, a 1993 graduate of Evans High School.
Last year, her pupils went beyond their class assignments and wrote plays, which they performed.
"She always worked us in our writing books and we learned a lot of writing. I want to make some money writing books, so that will help me with that," said Ryan Berry, a seventh-grader, who was in Dinkins' class last year.
He was one of the primary writers of a play about bullying, which the class presented to upcoming sixth-graders.
Emily Olson, also a seventh-grader, played one of the main characters in the play, an experience she said she'll always remember.
"Everybody liked going to her class," she said.
Sponsored by the Georgia Department of Education, Georgia's Teacher of the Year Program annually spotlights the teaching profession and recognizes outstanding public-school teachers at the local and state levels.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.