Poverty was a Pupil in My Classroom

By Missy Naseman Rivera

Ms. Rivera graduated from Berea College in 2005 with a degree in English and a literature concentration. She then went on to graduate school at Kent State University in Kent, Ohio and graduated in August 2006 with a Master’s degree in Library and Information Science. She worked as a youth services librarian at a small community library until 2009 when she combined her passion for literacy and education to become a school librarian in 2009 at Anna Middle and High School in Anna, Ohio. 

"Each week my students choose a new book from a selection I brought in. I wouldn’t limit their selection based on reading level or book topic, if they wanted the book, they could have it. Their budding at-home libraries grew to be eight books strong by the end of the summer," writes Rivera (Berea 2005).

“Each week my students choose a new book from a selection I brought in. I wouldn’t limit their selection based on reading level or book topic, if they wanted the book, they could have it. Their budding at-home libraries grew to be eight books strong by the end of the summer,” writes Rivera (Berea 2005).


I’ll never forget my first day of teaching in a Baltimore city classroom for the Teach Baltimore Summer Academy through the Shepherd Alliance Summer Internship program. The Teach Baltimore Summer Academy is designed to give at risk students eight weeks of intensive reading and writing instruction to help prevent summer learning loss and improve reading skills. Though I was designated the official “teacher” of the classroom, my pupils taught me far more starting with that first day during carpet time.

We all settled in for carpet time and after the Days of the Week Song followed by What’s the Weather and we came to the sharing portion of carpet time. With bright eyes I looked at my students—all sitting criss-cross applesauce—and asked: “Would anyone like to share what they did last weekend?” I was expecting stories similar to what I experienced in childhood, maybe they went to the library, or to church, or visited a friend. My divorced mom raised my sister and me while attending college full-time and working full-time, so I was familiar with what it was like to be raised on meager means and by one parent. Many of my students came from similar backgrounds, so likewise I thought their childhood experiences would be comparable to mine. Their answers to my simple question about their weekend activities showed me how little I understood about the crisis of urban poverty. Their answers reflected their at-home environment and demonstrated the vast differences between the rural poverty I experienced and the urban poverty my students were growing up in. I quickly learned that poverty is multi-faceted and cannot be strictly defined by simple financial terms.

Poverty and its accompanying issues, such as homelessness and hunger, were unofficial students in my classroom. Every day while I took attendance it was like I could see their reflection on the faces of many of my students. The students would have tired eyes from the restlessness that comes from sleeping on a different couch in a different apartment every night or their hunger would drive them to be irritable with other students. Sometimes they would come with heavy backpacks brimming of everything they treasured in the world because after-school they would be moving to another apartment in the neighborhood. Before I could teach the alphabet and the basics of reading, I had to first learn how to combat the effects of poverty in the classroom. A provided breakfast and lunch helped to take the edge off of the hunger my students felt. I purchased simple school supplies and classroom activities that enriched student learning. And while I realized I couldn’t control their home life, I could provide a stable, welcoming classroom that gave them opportunities that they might not have had elsewise.

In addition to providing a stable classroom environment, I strived to find other ways to enhance my students’ learning experience. However, these efforts achieved minimal results. I quickly learned that the urban poverty, and the accompanying issues my students faced, was like a thick haze that enveloped every lesson. While I could engage and encourage students in the classroom, upon leaving the school they were quickly swallowed by that thick haze. Ultimately, this led me to respect my students on a higher level because they were fighting battles better suited for adults. Though technically I grew up in poverty, the stable home environment my mother provided gave us riches in academic success and personal growth that was not afforded by my students. This demonstrated to me the importance of teaching the whole child and his or her family if possible. Programs like Teach Baltimore help to keep students academically engaged and provide stable environments.  Based on my experience, I believe these programs should be expanded to benefit the families as well. Many summer programs have embraced this idea and now offer take home activities, books, and food for families of children enrolled in their programs. These actions help to connect the classroom and home life and create true learning opportunities.

Out of everything my students experienced, one opportunity stands out as really creating an impact for both my students and their families. Many of my students had fines and other barriers that often prevented them from utilizing the local public library, so I sought ways to get them books that they could keep. As an avid reader myself, I knew the value of an at-home library, no matter how small. I volunteered with a then small non-profit called “The Book Thing” and found high quality free children’s books that I could give my students. Each week my students choose a new book from a selection I brought in. I wouldn’t limit their selection based on reading level or book topic, if they wanted the book, they could have it. Their budding at-home libraries grew to be eight books strong by the end of the summer. The last day of class a student pulled me to the side and showed me her complete library with the a few extra books added in. She told me how she loved reading her books with her mom and baby brother. With a quick hug she said “Thank you for helping me to read. I love my library.”  She then ran off to be with her classmates.

For years that memory of that quick hug and the recognition that books can change a child’s life shaped my career pathway. As an English major at Berea College, I always knew I would somehow be working with literature but it was unclear how this would transpire. My internship experience awakened my passion for youth and literacy. Upon returning from Baltimore, I decided that my future occupation would be a youth services librarian and began exploring graduate schools that offered an advanced degree in library science. I started out as children’s librarian in a public library before transitioning to my current position as a school librarian. Giving free books to children has always been a priority of mine. I created a program that partnered with the local mobile food pantry to distribute free books to low-income families. Funded by local groups and a national grant, we distributed over 1,000 books to at-risk children during the project’s run. Beyond that project, I am actively involved in several literacy based volunteer groups and helped to launch the Dolly Parton Imagination Library program in my county. Literacy is the center of my occupation and my passion. My internship with the Shepherd Alliance program helped me to find this passion and changed the way I view poverty and in turn, the way I teach.

#DollyPartonImaginationLibrary #KentStateUniversity #TeachBaltimoreSummerAcademy #TheBookThing

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