Super Smart Strategies

With state exams underway, schools turn from test prep to test pep

PHOTO: East Side Community School
Mark Federman, principal of Manhattan's East Side Community School, passed out "Super Smart Smiley Unstuck Stickers" before the English exams Tuesday.

Their desks were cleared, their pencils sharpened, but the middle school students at Manhattan’s East Side Community School had one more pre-test ritual to complete before launching into the state English exams Tuesday morning. They had to slap on “Super Smart Smiley Unstuck Stickers.”

Principal Mark Federman passed out the bright smiley-face stickers before the test, explaining to students that they need only smile if they get stuck during the test and the stickers will unleash their “inner smartness.” But, he warned, excessive use may make students as smart as teachers.

“Every day I come up with a different shtick,” Federman said. “The idea is to get them to relax and realize: This is important, but it’s going to be OK.”

From classroom yoga to multi-school rallies, educators have found creative ways to balance this year’s test prep with test pep.

Despite pleas from the new schools chancellor to tamp down on test preparation, some schools have spent weeks administering practice exams and reviewing test-taking strategies ahead of the state English exams for grades three through eight, which continue through Thursday. (The state math tests start at the end of the month.) Other schools, convinced that the best preparation for the tests is standards-aligned instruction, kept test prep to a minimum.

After last year’s exams — the first tied to the more rigorous Common Core standards, when far fewer students passed than in previous years — educators said they have mixed feelings heading into the latest round of Common Core tests.

But, those same educators told Chalkbeat, all want their students to succeed on the tests — and most have well-honed test-week strategies to try to make that happen.

Federman with the test-anxiety-reducing stickers he passed out to students.
PHOTO: East Side Community School
Federman with the test-anxiety-reducing stickers he passed out to students.

Students at Highbridge Green School in the Bronx do yoga before the exams, as well as meditation exercises taught by a science teacher with a background in neuroscience, said English teacher Anna Staab.

“For some of my kids,” she said, “that self-soothing and self-regulation is almost as important as anything else they could do during test time.”

Other schools prefer to psych students up rather than cool them down.

At I.S. 131 in the Bronx, that has meant pep rallies, daily pre-test countdowns, and bagel breakfasts on test days.

Last week, some 2,300 students from 22 Success Academy charter schools converged for a massive “Slam the Exam” rally. But even before that, students won basketballs and other coveted prizes for focusing on practice tests, and teachers were rewarded with new Converse sneakers for their test-prep instruction, according to a current Success teacher who asked for anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak to the press. During test week, the network is paying for teachers to take early-morning cabs to the homes of students with a history of tardiness and shepherd them to school, the teacher added.

At Brooklyn’s M.S. 447, the reward for diligent test prep was Chinese food for lunch Monday, which students could win with raffle tickets.

At Brooklyn’s P.S. 10, intercoms will be blasting the anxiety-melting pop song, “Happy,” as well as the school cheer, said principal Laura Scott. Inside classrooms, teachers will dutifully deliver test-day jokes, which the school says are both soothing and stimulating.

“The kids are relaxed now, laughing their heads off,” Scott explained. “But at the same time, they’re trying to think about what the answer is.”

Students at the Lower Manhattan Middle School boosted one another before the exam. One class made pencil-and-candy-filled “Good Luck Baskets” for their peers, while another posted positive messages on their classroom door.

But the school tries not to go overboard as it gears up for the exams, said principal Kelly McGuire.

“Our general thought,” he said, “is that if we’re teaching good stuff all year, then the kids should do well on the tests.”

Want the latest in New York City education news? Follow Chalkbeat on Facebook or @ChalkbeatNY on Twitter.

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”

moving forward

After Confederate flag dispute at Colorado football game, schools pledge to bring students together

PHOTO: Marc Piscotty
Manual High students.

Acknowledging “we may never have a conclusive picture of what happened,” two Colorado school districts sought to move past a controversy over whether a Confederate flag was displayed at a football game and open a conversation between the two school communities.

The principal of Manual High, Nick Dawkins, wrote in a community letter over the weekend that the visiting Weld Central High School team “displayed a Confederate flag during the first quarter of the (Friday night) game, offending many members of the Manual community.”

Officials from Denver Public Schools and Weld County School District Re-3J released a joint letter Tuesday saying that based “on what we have learned to date, however, the Weld Central team did not display the Confederate flag.” At the same time, it said, multiple Manual eyewitnesses “reported seeing spectators who attempted to bring a Confederate flag into the game and clothing with flag images.”

Going forward, students from the two schools — one rural and one urban — will participate in a student leadership exchange that has student leaders visit each other’s schools and communities to “share ideas and perspectives,” the letter says.

“At a time in our country when so many are divided, we want our students instead to come together, share ideas and learn together,” says the letter, which is signed by the principals of both schools and the superintendents of both school districts.

The alleged incident took place at a time when issues of race, social injustice, politics and sports are colliding in the United States, making for tough conversations, including in classrooms.

Weld Central’s mascot is a Rebel. Manual, whose mascot is the Thunderbolts, is located in one of Denver’s historically African-American neighborhoods.

Dawkins in his initial community letter also said “the tension created by the flag led to conflict on and off the playing field,” and that three Manual players were injured, including one who went to the hospital with a leg injury. He also said some Manual players reported that Weld Central players “taunted them with racial slurs.”

Weld Central officials vehemently denied that their team displayed the flag. In addition, they said in their own community letter they had “no evidence at this point that any of our student athletes displayed racially motivated inappropriate behavior.”

They said district officials “do not condone any form of racism,” including the Confederate flag.

Weld Central fans told the Greeley Tribune that they didn’t see any Confederate flag.

Read the full text below.