She Let Them Pick Paper Topics— Half Chose COVID-19
New York magazine|April 13 - 26, 2020
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She Let Them Pick Paper Topics— Half Chose COVID-19
Samantha Elkaim knows she can’t replicate her classroom, but maybe she can still reach her students.
MOLLY FISCHER

THE FIRST week she taught online, Samantha Elkaim planned a lesson on misinformation: Her students collected coronavirus material from social media and analyzed its trustworthiness and accuracy. The second week, they started research papers. “If the thing you’re most curious about right now is coronavirus, write about it,” she told the class. “If you’re really curious about baseball right now because it’s the thing that’s keeping you from going crazy about coronavirus, write about baseball.” She wound up with roughly a 50-50 split between topics coronavirus related and not. (One student wanted to write about whether people were going to love technology or hate it when this was all over.) Before the pandemic, Elkaim had been hoping to get to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, but she’s not sure it will happen now.

Elkaim has big glasses and a big smile and could still pass for the college student she was not too long ago. She teaches 11th- and 12th-grade English at a public high school in lower Manhattan, and throughout her childhood—attending public schools in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island—she was a kid who loved school, loved spending time with her teachers. It took her a while to realize she might want to be a teacher herself. Her mother is a teacher, and therefore teaching seemed normal and boring. But eventually she made her way to the adolescent- English program at Hunter.

Elkaim’s mother taught kindergarten and first grade for years; Elkaim spent five years as a middle-school teacher before moving to high school last fall. Even so, she learned a few crucial lessons about the job from watching her mother that have come into focus since the coronavirus shut down New York City schools. One was that teaching is all about relationships. Her mother was always good at this—picking up on the little things that showed a kid you were paying attention. A conversation about a cartoon character backpack could open the door to a genuine connection. “You’re never going to strong-arm a kid into doing what you want or need them to do,” Elkaim learned. “But if you find the ‘in,’ you can make it happen.”

Now that her students are stuck at home, they seem hungry for connection. But such moments are scarce in online school. Saying “hello” in the comments on Google Classroom isn’t the same as finding a minute to talk with the quiet kid who shows up early after lunch. Carried on at a distance, the relationships all seem so fragile.

“School is such a place of escape for kids. It’s such a place to be free. Some kids are way more out and open—whether that’s sexuality, whether that’s their own ideas—and then you meet their parents and you’re like, Oh, you don’t know any of this about them.” All teenagers want is to get out of the house, but sheltering in place means “you’re at home with these people who don’t get you,” Elkaim said. “Honestly, what I hear the most is ‘I would give anything to go back to school.’ ”

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April 13 - 26, 2020