Sunday, September 1, 2013

Welcome to Mr. Fessler's Grade 4 and 5 Class at AISB Mali

A New Year and New Hope

Mali's new president, Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta

You can certainly sense the excitement in the air at AISB, because there are so many things to be grateful for as this new school year begins. Mali seems to be back on track after successful elections, we have many new enrollments at school, and we have an energetic and creative group of new teachers joining our existing energetic and creative faculty. I've never been a fan of heavy traffic, but I have to say I'm thrilled to see our crowded school parking lot in the morning, and the halls filled with happy students, parents, and teachers! 

So far we have 17 students enrolled in our class, with five students in Grade 4 and twelve in Grade 5. We are still waiting for six students to join us, but I can tell you without a doubt that this is a dynamic and motivated group of students who will keep me on my toes! That's the kind of challenge I live for!

About Me

I was born and raised in a small town on the Mississippi River called Quincy, Illinois. My parents are retired now, but my dad was an elementary teacher and principal, and my mom worked in an elementary school library. I'm the oldest of four children--Jill, Amy (a Grade 5 teacher), and Todd are my siblings. Strangely, Jill, Todd and I were all born on July 2 in different years!

I had an idyllic childhood going to excellent public schools full of amazing teachers who made learning a treat. I couldn't wait to get to school every day. I also enjoyed being outside as much as possible--riding a bike or playing in the creek in the park in the summer, tracking footprints in the snow and building igloos in the winter, jumping in huge piles of leaves and enjoying hayrides in the autumn, and planting a garden in the spring. I was--and still am--a voracious reader and voracious TV and movie viewer.

International living and travel has been my passion for many years. At 16 I was an exchange student to Trujillo, Peru. In college I spent a summer interning at a company in Nurnberg, Germany and backpacking through 10 European countries and Egypt. As an adult I've traveled to over 55 countries, from Iceland to Easter Island, and Nicaragua to Cambodia. Teaching and living in Mali is my dream come true.

I grew up in an arts-rich community and regularly participated in theatre, choir, and visual art activities. I started college as a theatre major (the current president of NBC was my classmate and friend!), and eventually transferred into Landscape Architecture, a field that combined my interests of design and the outdoors. After receiving my bachelor's degree in this I moved to south Florida and worked in two different landscape architecture firms. After volunteering in a local classroom I realized that teaching was calling me in a big way, so I returned to college and received a master's degree in education. In addition I went through a grueling yearlong process to become a National Board Certified Teacher in early/middle school literacy.

I've now been a classroom teacher for 11 years, worked in my Florida school district's curriculum department for two years, and served as a national education consultant for six years. As a consultant I had the unique opportunity to train teachers in dozens of schools across the United States, from a rural school on the beach in Hawaii to an urban school in the heart of the Bronx in New York City to an American Indian school on a reservation in Washington State. 

All of these experiences have opened my eyes to the many ways of teaching and motivating young people, and I'm constantly looking for effective, research-based approaches to engaging my students in school (and life). I'm an advocate of cooperative learning, arts integrated instruction, and service learning (more about those in another blog post). In 2011 I was recognized for these approaches, selected out of 13,000 educators as Teacher of the Year in Palm Beach County, the 10th largest school district in the U.S. I have also coauthored a book on some of these approaches called "How to Plan Your School Year," from Evan-Moor Publishing.

We are fortunate to have Ben Amegatsey as our full-time class assistant this year. Ben is an AISB veteran and a technology whiz. With two adults in the classroom we are able to provide meaningful, one-to-one interaction with our students.

We look forward to inspiring your child this year!


Research shows that children do better in school when parents talk often with teachersand become involved in the school. There are a number of ways that we try to facilitate good communication between parents and teachers/AISB:

  • email (
  • this weekly class blog (usually updated every Sunday afternoon)
  • parent-teacher conference days (Nov. 8, April 11)
  • leaving notes in your child's Student Planner book
  • progress reports (provided each quarter if we have any academic concerns)
  • report cards (provided quarterly)
  • phone (I'll provide my cell# in an email to you)
  • weekly elementary assemblies (7:30 AM on Tuesdays)
  • AISB newsletter (emailed monthly by Ms. Jacoby)
  • scheduled meetings after school
I encourage you to email me any time you have questions or concerns. For me this is the most practical and timely way that I can respond to your queries.

Combined Grade Classrooms

Last year our elementary classes adopted the combined grade model, in which students from two different grade levels are combined into one class taught by one teacher. This was a decision prompted by a smaller student enrollment due to instability in Mali at the time. One teacher taught kindergarten-Grade 1, another taught Grades 2-3, and I taught Grades 4-5.

This year we continue that model, although our enrollments continue to climb--especially in Grades 2-3 and Grades 4-5. AISB Board policy does limit classes to no more than 20 students and we are just three students away from that limit. While it is possible that we remain under the limit this school year, we have planned for other scenarios. Mrs. Jacoby and I have discussed options in the event we are required to divide the class into two separate grade levels, including a "team teaching" scenario in which a new teacher and I would share the responsibilities of teaching both grade levels. Rest assured that our number one goal is maintaining the academic and social well-being of your child.

In the meantime, please note that research indicates that:
  • students in combined grade classrooms achieve the same level of academic results as students in single grade classrooms
  • there are academic and social benefits to interacting with individuals of various ages and levels of development
  • on average a single grade class includes students whose development spans five years--the developmental range in a combined class is not significantly different
  • the social benefits of combined classes include greater independence, responsibility, more opportunities for emotional and social development, and increased positive attitude towards school 
  • students in combined grade classrooms excel when working at the level of the entire class and practicing such strategies as explicit instruction, cooperative learning and mentoring (three methodologies I use in my classroom; for more information on these follow this link: )
  • an effective approach in combined grade classrooms is planning across the curriculum and integrating various subjects (I use these approaches as well)
  • successful learning is less dependent on organizational strategies (e.g. combined classes vs. single grade class) than on the quality of instructional practices
For detailed information on the research, follow these links:

Our Daily Schedule


In my reading class I have two main goals: to teach foundational literacy skills and to instill a love of reading in every student.

To achieve these goals I primarily use novels, but also include short stories, poetry, and non-fiction. I generally teach the literature in a whole-class approach, first modeling the skills I want students to master, then allowing them to practice these skills with their team and partner, and finally offering enough support so they master the skills individually. Students who need extra assistance in literacy skills also benefit from either additional academic support classes or ESOL classes. 

I use many research-based approaches in my reading instruction including arts integration. This past week I introduced our first novel, The Kid in the Red Jacket by Barbara Park. This book involves a family making a long distance move, and the challenges that creates for the ten-year-old main character. Obviously this theme is one that my students can identify with on a personal level! To build background before we read I had students analyze a song with a similar theme, Wherever I Go by Miley Cyrus. They picked apart the lyrics in order to understand the song's main messages, which include the fact that even though you move far away, you always have the memories from your previous situation. 

Using a song in this manner is an example of arts integration, a research-based approach that uses an art form to teach academic skills but also helps the child understand and appreciate specific forms of art. In this example the song really spoke to the class, and led to meaningful discussions about the long distance moves they have made and how they have coped. As we further analyze the song in the week to come they will discover how songs are really just poetry put to music, how specific styles of music support a song's message, and how a music video tries to represent the lyrics.

I also focus on one or two reading comprehension skills with each novel we read. For this novel we are focusing on making inferences and identifying plot elements in a story. Last week I introduced the skill of making inferences, or "reading between the lines." They learned that making a good inference requires looking for clues in the text and using your own background knowledge. I even introduced the idea that one can make inferences from a painting, and had students analyze Grant Wood's famous painting American Gothic. We will practice this skill every day by making inferences from the chapter we read in our novel.

Grant Wood, American, 1891 – 1942
American Gothic, 1930

Each week in this blog I'll explain what the students did in reading--the skills they focused on, the activities they participated in, the real world connections they discovered as they read--and I'll share simple ways that you can support this at home.

How You Can Support Reading at Home This Week:
Ask your child:
  • How does one make an inference?
  • What is the message in the song "Wherever I Go?" 
  • What personal connections can you make to this song's message?
  • What inferences did you make from the painting American Gothic?


We begin our regular, daily math classes in the coming week. I teach Grade 4 and Grade 5 students separately for math as each grade includes specific math standards that students must comprehend before year's end.

As with reading instruction I use a variety of instructional techniques to make math engaging and understandable. That includes arts integration, hands-on activities, and science-math connections.

Last week I administered a pre-test to gauge each students' current level of math skills. This information, along with the results from MAP testing students will take next month, will help me target the exact math concepts your child needs to develop over the school year.


In the elementary school we use a writing program "Writing Workshop," a well-known program developed at Columbia University in New York City. Its goal is to foster lifelong writers. Writing Workshop is based upon four principles. Students will: 
  • write about their own lives
  • use a consistent writing process
  • work in authentic ways
  • learn to be independent writers
As we finish each unit of writing, we host an Author's Reading in our classroom. We invite parents to attend these 50-minute presentations in which students read their written pieces. You'll be impressed with their work, I promise!

Social Studies & Science

I alternate teaching social studies and science, teaching a unit in each subject for about five weeks each. I write each unit in a comprehensive, real world, project-based way.  

For example, we begin with a social studies unit on Africa, focusing on its diverse cultures, geography, and history. Building upon an idea I used last year, student teams will become theme park designers, tasked with creating a theme park that accurately represents a region of Africa (either North, South, East or West Africa). Their parks will include a living museum, restaurants, rides, shops, and landscaping--all which must be an authentic representation of the region  and its countries. 

In order to do this teams will complete extensive research on their assigned regions, study existing theme parks to understand the methodologies designers use, and engage in site planning using a scaled drawing. As you can imagine, this process not only teaches content (African history, geography, and culture), but builds critical thinking skills since they must APPLY their knowledge to create a theme park. I also think they will really enjoy working on this challenge.

Our First Week

We had a very productive start to the school year. In just three days students created a set of class belief posters in the style of pop artist Roy Lichtenstein (ask them about this style of art), engaged in some team building activities to bond with their teammates, created their superhero alter ego, took a math pre-test, started our first novel, and were introduced to theatre skills that they will use all year in their various academic subjects. Here are some photos from this flurry of activity:

Tower Building Team Activity

I began teaching basic theatre skills in preparation for some reading activities in the weeks ahead....

School Supplies

Please provide your child with the following school supplies so they have everything they need for class this year:
5 boxes of No. 2 Pencils (10 per box) - no mechanical pencils please
2 Erasers
2 Sharpeners
1 Box Color Pencils
5 Composition books (100 pages each)
2 packets white lined paper
1 box colored markers - thin or thick
2 glue sticks
1 USB Flash Drive
5 pocket folders
1 small zipped pencil case
1 pack 3X3 Post it notes
1 water color set (8 colors min) with brush
1 lined notebook for French 

Coming Soon

Tuesday 27 August, 6:30 PM: AISB Board meeting. Parents and teachers are always welcome to attend.

Thursday 28 August, 7:00 PM: Back to School Night: Meet the teachers and the parents of the other students, and learn about the curriculum and expectations for your child this school year.

Monday 2 September, 3:00 PM: After school activities begin. Sign up forms will be sent home this week.

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