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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

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.”