Sunday, August 17, 2014

Welcome to Mr. Fessler's Grade 4 & 5 class!


Where did the summer go? It seems like just yesterday I was boarding a flight out of Bamako to begin my summer vacation. I travelled for 61 days on 19 flights with stops in Portugal, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Illinois, Washington state, Florida, and Missouri. It was a fantastic adventure but I must say that it was a relief to return to my own house in sunny and warm Bamako. Plus, living out of a suitcase for two months gets old after awhile!

IMG 3517
Our classroom door, giving a hint about our theme for Week 1….

AISB teachers have been back to school for a week already, readying our classrooms and participating in professional development. We have new faculty members who I’ve enjoyed meeting, and they are full of energy and creativity. And our student numbers continue to rise…the empty classrooms on either side of our classroom are once again functioning classrooms! With the political situation in Mali being more stable than it has been for a long time, I look forward to a great school year ahead.

Taking a selfie in the middle of a canal in Amsterdam this summer. It started pouring rain about a minute later.


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 school teacher and principal, and my mom worked in an elementary school library. I’m the oldest of four children—Jill, Amy (who teaches Grade 5 in Quincy), and Todd are my siblings. Strangely, Jill, Todd, and I were all born on July 2 in different years!

13 Webster2ndGrade67 68
My second grade class at Webster Elementary School in Quincy, Illinois. I’m second from the right in the front row with the other short kids...

I had an idyllic childhood attending excellent public schools full of amazing teachers who made learning a treat. I couldn't wait to get to school every day. I loved to draw, paint, and sing, and especially 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 Nuremberg, Germany and backpacking through 10 European countries and Egypt. As an adult I've traveled to over 50 countries, from Iceland to Easter Island, and Nicaragua to Cambodia. Teaching and living in Mali continues to be my dream come true.

Me as a high school exchange student in Peru. Here I am after hiking three days to Machu Picchu!

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 my real passion, 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 in education for 18 years, the last three at AISB. While the majority of my experience has been as a classroom teacher, I also worked in my Florida school district's curriculum department for two years, and served as a national education consultant for six years. As an education 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 engage 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 again this year. Originally from Ghana, 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!


While our student numbers are rising, we are still dealing with reduced enrollment due to the coup two years ago. As a result, some of our elementary classes will again be mixed grade classrooms: Grades 1& 2 are combined as well as our own Grade 4 & 5 class. We currently have 18 students enrolled in our class, ten in Grade 4 and eight in Grade 5. AISB Board policy does limit classes to 20 students, so if more students enroll we will revisit the mixed grade class scenario. Rest assured that our goal is always to maintain the academic and social well-being of your child.  

For those of you unfamiliar with a mixed grade classroom, here is what the research says:
  • students in mixed 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 mixed classes include greater independence, responsibility, more opportunities for emotional and social development, and increased positive attitude towards school 
  • an effective approach in mixed grade classrooms is planning across the curriculum and integrating various subjects (I use these approaches as well)
  • successful learning is less dependent on how the class is organized and more dependent on the quality of instructional practices

For detailed information on this research, follow these links:


Research shows that children do better in school when parents talk often with teachers and become involved in school. There are many ways for you to stay in touch and to become involved at AISB:

  • email me:
  • follow this weekly class blog which I usually update every Sunday
  • attend parent-teacher conference days held on Friday 14 November 2014 and Friday 10 April 2015
  • review progress reports that are provided each quarter if we have any academic concerns or if your child is in ESOL
  • review report cards that are provided quarterly
  • phone me (I'll provide my cell# in an email to you)
  • attend twice-a-month elementary assemblies (dates to be announced)
  • read the AISB newsletter (link is emailed monthly by Ms. Jacoby)
  • for more serious concerns, schedule a meeting after school
I encourage you to email me if you have concerns or questions—for me this is the most practical and timely way for me to respond to you.

OUR DAILY SCHEDULE (Subject to change, but so far, so good!)


I have two goals in my reading class: to teach foundational literacy skills and to instill a love of reading. To achieve these goals I primarily use novels, bit I do also include some short stories, poetry, and non-fiction texts. I generally teach the literature using a whole class approach with Grade 4 and 5 students together, and follow this routine: I model the skills and techniques I want them to master, then I allow them time to practice these skills with their partner and team, and finally I make sure I offer enough support so that they master the skills and techniques individually. With two adults in the classroom owe are able to provide extra support to struggling students. These students may also receive additional support in ESOL classes or in an academic support class.

As you will discover in the weeks to come, I use a research-based approach called “arts integration” in my reading instruction. This technique uses an art form to teach an academic skill, helping the student to learn the academic skill as well as an art skill. For example, soon we will read a novel about a student who wants to be perfect. So I’ll have students analyze the song “Perfect” by the band Simple Plan. I’ll ask students to determine how being “perfect” is interpreted in the lyrics and in the music, and how that connects to the novel in class. For them to do this effectively I’ll teach them the basics about song lyrics and music. So they learn academic skills (determining the main idea and theme) and an arts skill (how lyrics and music are used to create a song). More on this in future blogs!

For every piece of literature we read in class I focus on one or two comprehension skills, such as “determining main idea” or “making inferences.” Each week I’ll provide a few ways you can assist me in reinforcing these reading skills at home.

Be a perfect person
Our first novel will help students explore what it means to be “perfect."

Beginning Wednesday evening, your child will have a nightly reading assignment I call “Read to Succeed.” It is based on research that says a child’s reading ability improves significantly by reading daily for 20 minutes or more. It will be extremely helpful if you make sure this assignment is completed nightly. Here’s how it works:
  • Students each choose a book from our class library, school library, or home.
  • Each school night they must read that book for 20 minutes or more.
  • After reading for 20 minutes or more, they write a short paragraph (at least five sentences) summarizing the reading. A summary only includes the important parts of the reading, not a detailed retelling of every page.
  • They write this summary in their reading composition book.
  • On the following morning I check this summary and initial next to it.
Here’s how that process might look for a hypothetical student in Grade 4 or 5:

On Monday Adama chooses the book “The Little Prince” from the classroom library. Monday evening he reads for 23 minutes, covering pages 3 through 13. He then writes a short paragraph in his reading composition notebook summarizing what he read: A boy is upset that adults discouraged him from being an artist when he was young. So he became a pilot, and one day crash lands in the Sahara. There he meets a strange little prince who asks him to draw pictures of sheep. The pilot tries several times but the prince doesn’t like the drawings. The pilot finally draws a box and says that the sheep is inside, and this satisfies the prince. The prince may be from another planet. 

On Tuesday morning Adama brings his reading composition notebook to class and I check his summary, writing my initials next to it. On Tuesday evening he continues reading The Little Prince at home, and in 24 minutes covers pages 14 - 24. He again writes a summary explaining what happened in those ten pages, brings it to class the next day, and so on. Adama will do this every weekday night until he finishes The Little Prince. Then he chooses a new book to read and continues the process.

  • Please make sure your child has an appropriate place to read at home (well lit, free of distractions such as TV/noise/siblings, etc.), and that he/she is completing this important assignment each evening.
  • Read his/her summary and make sure it summarizes the pages read rather than giving a detailed retelling of the story.
  • Make sure your child has a reading composition notebook (the notebooks with the black, speckled cardboard covers are best—these are available in the school store and at La Fourmi). The student’s name and the word “Reading” should be written clearly on the cover.


I teach Grade 4 and 5 separately for math instruction as each grade has specific skills I’m required to cover. I spend 45 minutes with Grade 4 in which I introduce a math concept, model it, allow time for the students to practice that skill with a partner, then have students complete practice problems individually so I can make sure they understood the concept completely. If they did not, I reteach the skill until everyone is comfortable with it.

While I am with Grade 4, Mr. Ben is with Grade 5. In his 45 minutes with them he reviews the math homework from the previous day, administers a timed, daily math facts quiz (either on addition, subtraction, multiplication, or division facts), and uses extension activities to reinforce the math concept I taught the previous day. He reports to me daily about homework completion, how each student is progressing with math facts, and if all students were able to complete the extension activities.

Then we switch grade level groups and repeat the same routine.

The new math book.

As with reading instruction, I use a variety of approaches (arts integration, hands-on activities, video clips, science and math connections etc.) to make math engaging and understandable. We have brand new math books this year! These are consumable books, meaning students write their answers to classwork and homework right in the books. I very much like this math series as it always makes a connection between math concepts and the real world.

  • Starting Friday students will have math homework. Please make sure they complete the assigned pages in their math book.
  • Make sure your child has memorized the basic math facts (up to the 12s) for addition, subtraction, and multiplication. For example, they should immediately know that 12 + 6 = 18, 9 - 6 = 3, 8 x 6 = 48, etc. Your child can practice by making flash cards or use online math fact games such as I cannot stress this enough: If your child does not memorize the basic math facts up to the 12s, he/she will have much difficulty completing the Grade 4 and 5 math assignments this year.
  • A math composition notebook is NOT necessary. Students will write directly in their math book that I will distribute to them in the coming week.


In the elementary school we use a writing program called “Writers Workshop,” a well-known, well-researched program developed at Columbia University in New York. Its goal is to foster lifelong writers, and it bases its program on four principles:
  • students write about their own lives
  • they use a consistent writing process
  • they work in authentic ways
  • they learn to be independent writers
Units of study

Students begin with a unit on writing a personal narrative, a story about a person who is very special to them. Other units include expository writing (explaining a personal viewpoint), fiction stories, informative essays, and finally memoirs. We spend at least 5 weeks on each piece of writing, which includes daily instruction on writing specifics, getting feedback from peers and the teacher, and plenty of revising time. At the end of each unit we hold an Author Reading where students read to an audience. I’ll always let you know of these in advance in case you would like to attend.

  • Make sure your child has a writing composition notebook (the notebooks with the black, speckled cardboard covers are best—these are available in the school store and at La Fourmi). The student’s name and the word “Writing” should be written clearly on the cover.


I alternate teaching social studies and science units, spending about five weeks on each unit. We begin with a social studies unit on river civilizations, with a focus on ancient Egypt. When that is completed after five weeks, I’ll teach a science unit on earth building and breaking. Then it will be back to social studies again, and so on.

King Sobekemsaf I
King Sobekemsaf: Crime victim even after death!

I’ve written each unit so that it is real-world and engaging. For example, in the ancient Egypt unit students take on various roles of citizens at the time (royalty, vizier, stone mason, priestess, etc.). Together they work to solve a crime that actually occurred: the robbery of a pharaoh’s tomb. There are suspects (and of course they may be a suspect too!), a case file, video clips, books, and hands-on activities that will give them the details they need to solve the crime. Through this process they are having fun, but they are also learning specific social studies concepts, such as why did certain groups settle near rivers, how were their societies structured, etc.

  • Make sure your child has a composition notebook for social studies, and another for science (the notebooks with the black, speckled cardboard covers are best—these are available in the school store and at La Fourmi). The student’s name and the words “Social Studies” should be written clearly on the cover of one notebook; the student’s name and the word “Science” should be written clearly on the other notebook's cover


Before diving into each academic subject, I like to spend some time during the first week building camaraderie in the class and establishing a positive classroom environment. Some of the activities students will engage in include:

  • learning a little bit about each other through an art project (it involves Andy Warhol!) and through some theatre games
  • developing a list of "classroom beliefs" and creating posters depicting each belief
  • determining a name for their team (the group of 4 to 5 students with whom they sit) and creating a team name poster
  • team building activities (tower building, bucket moving) so they can work well with the other members of their team
  • learning conflict management skills

I promise that it will be an enjoyable week, designed to put your child at ease and make him/her excited about attending AISB!


It’s important that students begin the school year with their supplies ready to go. It is especially important that they maintain a supply of pencils throughout the year—within a month or two it always seems that pencils are in short supply. Here is the list for Grade 4 and 5. Most of these supplies are available at the school store, and all are available at local supermarkets such as La Fourmi.
  • 5 boxes of #2 pencils, 24 per box (no mechanical pencils please)
  • 2 erasers
  • 2 sharpeners
  • 1 box colored pencils
  • 5 composition books, 100 pg., black speckled cardboard covers preferred (1 each for reading, writing, social studies, science, and an extra)
  • 2 packets white, lined notebook paper
  • 1 box colored markers, thick or thin
  • 2 glue sticks
  • 1 USB flash drive (at least 4 GB)
  • 5 pocket folders
  • 1 small pencil case
  • 1 pack 3x3 Post It notes
  • 1 water color set (8 colors minimum) with brush
  • hat with student’s name written inside (see below)
  • water bottle with students name written on the outside (see below)
  • deodorant (optional, see below)



Students will not be allowed to participate in outdoor activities at recess and PE unless they are wearing a hat, whether it is sunny or cloudy. We created this policy last year as a means to protect your child’s eyes and skins from the very intense sun in Bamako. As one who has had skin cancer removed from my face, I strongly support the wearing of hats when outside! Please provide a hat (or two) for your child and make sure to write his/her name inside of it.

If your child has fairer skin, please also consider providing sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for him/her to apply. 

Water bottle
Reusable water bottles are also a necessity as we do not have drinking fountains at AISB. Instead there are water coolers located around the school where students may fill their personal water bottles. To be kinder to the environment, a reusable water bottle is best. If each student in our class brought in a throw-away plastic water bottle each day we would add about 3500 plastic bottles to Bamako’s garbage piles in just one school year! I think there is enough plastic waste littering Bamako already! Please make sure to clearly label the water bottle with your child’s name.

Last year a number of our students brought in their own deodorant to use after PE and recess. I very much welcome this practice!


Tue 19 Aug: First day of school for students

Fri 19 Sep: No school, teacher in-service 
Mon 22 Sep: No school, Independence Day holiday

Fri 3 Oct: No school, teacher in-service
Fri 24 Oct: End of Quarter 1
Mon 27 Oct - Fri 31 Oct: No school, Fall Break

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