Alumni in Action: Brianna Elder ’19 shifts focus to engage her students

When recent graduate Brianna Elder signed on to work in education through the City Year AmeriCorps program, she never imagined she would find herself coping with the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic in one of the nation’s hardest hit cities.

Brianna Elder ’19 comes alive when talking about the 5th and 6th grade students she works with at a charter school in New Orleans. She loves teaching them and coming up with different ways to keep them engaged in their learning, whether that’s bringing a round of Jeopardy to the classroom or helping organize a schoolwide talent show in honor of Black History Month in February.

But like her students, Elder’s world was thrown into a tailspin as COVID-19 began to ravage New Orleans. Already, the school has lost a teacher to the virus. The losses hit particularly hard in a community that Elder describes as both familial and immersive.

“It’s been a struggle for our teachers,” says Elder. “Everybody at our school has been impacted in some way.”

Compounding these difficulties is the fact that many of the school’s students come from lower income families and a wide range of household situations. As Elder says, “It can be scary knowing that some of the kids may not have the best situation, and I might not see them again until August. A lot of times, it feels like the gap for these students is widening every day.”

With the school transitioning from all in-person classes to remote learning, they can’t grieve or comfort each other in person as they typically would. Instead, Elder and her school community are quickly adapting to stay connected in a new socially distanced reality. Over the last few weeks, she has thrown herself into connecting with students from afar, communicating both with pupils and their families frequently throughout every day.

“I think every student in the 5th grade has my phone number at this point,” says Elder, who sends out everything from reminders to join their Google Classroom and status checks to messages that help troubleshoot technology issues. “It’s the highlight of my day to text with my students. One of them Facetimes me every day!’”

Elder and her colleagues also aim to strike a balance between providing both a familiar routine and some added flexibility for their students. They maintain a similar class schedule and assignments to what they have had in the past, while also taking a more flexible approach to grading and attendance.

“If I see a student pop into our Google Classroom for the first time in a while, I’m taking that opportunity to see how they’re doing. We’re using this time to be even more community based and make sure we are really taking care of our kids. They are surrounded by love, even if they can’t see us.” Her school has continued to name a student of week through social media and has even implemented a system to deliver prizes outside of students’ homes to recognize hard work.

Although they’ve faced significant adversity in the last few weeks, Elder has managed to find positive outcomes of the situation.

“I’ve learned I really can do the hard things in life, and one of the things I credit to Elon is my understanding of how this is all interconnected because of my liberal arts education. That grounds me, knowing that what I’m doing here is going to impact someone else.”

She has also come to see aspects of her community in a new light. “A lot of people have preconceptions about the communities I work with in terms of low income or low education, but they show the power of resiliency and the importance of community in a way I hadn’t really understood before,” she says. “New Orleans is a city that has seen a lot of hard times. Being around people who are from here, they remind me that we are going to get through this, together.”

About this series: The Elon Alumni in Action series explores the stories of university graduates who are doing important and uplifting work as the world faces the COVID-19 pandemic.