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How A Bronx Teacher Started A Green Classroom Revolution That Is Spreading Across The U.S.

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Stephen Ritz

Have you ever been in a position to change the world, or at least your small slice of it? Did you do it? Did you take the risks that would make a difference in the lives of others? If something held you back — unfavorable odds, fear of failure, lack of courage or something else — then Stephen Ritz's "The Power of a Plant" is for you.

The book is Ritz's story of how a school teacher used an infectious spirit of optimism to overcome professional setbacks and personal heartbreak to make a difference in the lives of children in the South Bronx in New York City. He did that by teaching them to plant seeds and showing them how seeds develop into healthy food. And how that healthy food can lead to better health, better grades and hope for a productive future.

Ritz, a native of the Bronx, stumbled into teaching in the borough nearly 30 years ago. He was initially placed in a high school of mainly Latino and Afro-Caribbean students where the crime rate was high and the graduation rate was just 17 percent. Once there, he discovered he had a knack for connecting and engaging with these students, especially the ones who seemed hardest to reach.

At first, he used sometimes unorthodox tactics to do that. Then, purely by accident, came a defining moment. He received a package of flower bulbs he mistakenly thought were onions. Afraid they might become missiles in a classroom brawl, he hid them behind a radiator and forgot about them.

Six weeks later, an enraged girl went after a boy who had gotten on her nerves once too often. As the scene unfolded, Ritz rushed toward them to break up what he afraid was about to become a disaster. He saw the boy reach toward the radiator and thought he might have stashed a weapon there. To his amazement, the boy suddenly pulled out a bouquet of yellow flowers and thrust them towards the girl as a peace offering. Stunned, Ritz watched what happened next. The boys started giving flowers to the girls, the girls wanted to take flowers home to their mothers and peace was restored.

The forgotten bulbs were actually daffodils. The steam from the radiator had forced them into bloom. The dramatic episode was an epiphany for Ritz. He realized that if there was power in plants to stop a classroom fight, there must be power in plants to transform lives and communities. Initially, he didn't know how to do that. He didn't have a grand plan. In fact, he readily admits, he didn't have any plan. But he had purpose, passion and hope.

He turned the moment into a green curriculum, a movement that would change his life and the lives of countless others. He incorporated vegetable gardens into sections of the South Bronx, on school grounds and on top of a building, organized the Green Teens, and then founded the Green Bronx Machine, a federally registered and approved nonprofit organization with 501(c)(3) status that seeks to be an engine of community change by fully integrating indoor vegetable gardening and green curriculum into a K-12+ model. This model is being used in 5,000 schools across the United States and in Canada, Dubai and other countries.

Ritz's students now have near-perfect attendance and graduation rates, they have significantly raised their passing rates on state exams and he has helped create 2,200 local jobs by changing mindsets about food, wellness and obesity in the middle of the largest tract of public housing in the South Bronx.

His efforts, which he has largely self-funded, have led to numerous awards. These include being a top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize and being named one of NPR's 50 Greatest Teachers. He has been invited to the Vatican to meet Pope Francis, presented at the White House three separate times and given a TEDx Talk when he was so weak recovering from surgery that he was advised to delay it. He went on stage anyway because he did not want to disappoint his kids. The talk has been viewed more than 1 million times; you can see it here:

He spoke with Mother Nature Network from his indoor demonstration classroom, the National Health Wellness and Learning Center, in the South Bronx's Community School 55. Officially a full-time volunteer, he is executive director of the center and works with the principal and administration to mentor teachers. He also teaches daily and coordinates after-school and summer programming.

The garden, composed of vertical towers in a formerly under-utilized library in a building that's more than 100 years old, has been replicated in the U.S. Botanic Garden. He discusses how his green curriculum gives a voice to children who have never had a voice, and how it has changed attitudes about growing, cooking, eating and sharing healthy food in the poorest congressional district in the country, in the least healthy county in New York and in one of the poorest performing school districts in New York City. It's a story about how his methods can unleash the power of a plant in your school district.

MNN: You have a passion to use plants and food to change the educational system and, seemingly against all odds, an unflinching belief in your ability to do that. Where did that come from?

Stephen Ritz: It's definitely a combination of passion, purpose and hope. I refer to myself as a CEO, Chief Eternal Optimist and Chief Excitement Officer of Bronx County. In absolutely the most unforgiving places, the most amazing things are absolutely possible. I grew up inspired by the people who were around me. It was a world where we grew up loving people and using things. Somewhere along the way, we have gone to loving things and using people. But if we live simply, others will simply live, and that is what this movement is all about.

So, I believe that behind every successful person, there is a role model. A teacher. A mentor. Someone who said, "Do this, don't give up, try this, I believe in you." Remarkably for me, that was my parents and my grandparents and, along the way, a couple of teachers who showed me some love at the least likely time. Similarly, I try to do that every day. I meet the kids on the steps of the school and shake their hands and welcome them in and try and turn that frown upside-down. If I can pull air into my lungs and extend my head toward the sun just like a plant, so can they. That's the beauty of showing up, growing up and making epic happen — moving children from impossible to I'm possible, each and every day.

You have overcome personal struggles and devastating losses as well as jealousy from other educators. What has sustained you?

What sustains me is that I am here, and I am not going anywhere. More often than not, the answers to the world's most difficult problems are right in front of us. If we will all just take a little bit of ownership, we will get to "Yes!" That's what the world should be about. It should not be us versus them. It should be how do we get to "Yes!" and leave this place a little bit better than we found it.

In a lot of ways, the system is rigged. Whether by design or by default, that's a wholly separate conversation. That's not the conversation I want to have. The conversation I want to have is what can we do today, minute by minute, moment by moment that will make us and our lives better, more prosperous, more inclusive and make us want to do things that will leave the planet better. That's imminently doable. Understanding our place in the food chain and the relationships around us and how we can add value to others' lives is, to me, what I was put on this Earth to do. So many people have added value to my life that I forever just want to pay that forward and add value to theirs, mindful that I certainly believe that the greatest natural resource in this entire world is the untapped potential residing in marginalized communities.

What we have here is outrageous. Every day I am looking at the next Barack Obama, Sonya Sotomayor, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Carmen Farina (New York City Schools chancellor), Ruben Diaz Jr. (Bronx borough president), Gustavo Rivera (a New York state senator), Michael Blake (a New York state assemblyman) or Vanessa Gibson (a New York City Council member), children who will change the trajectory of their lives and communities. That, to me, is so inspiring. How do we create pathways for success? It's the same thing in Africa. The same thing in South America. The same thing in the Middle East. The same thing everywhere I go. How do we help those who have become apart from to becoming a part of in ways that benefit the world?

Is that why you have so much compassion for at-risk children, which comes across so strongly in your book?

I am one of them! No one tells you that you are going to grow up and be separate and unequal. No one grows up and tells you, "Hey, you know, the system isn’t fair." But sooner or later you have eyes, and you see. You have ears, and you listen. Now, you can be angry and jaded, or you can do something. But the time to do nothing is never. Every day is the opportunity to do something. In a world where we tell people they are talented and gifted, let's see [what would happen] if we just told them there are those who work harder. So, next year you could be in a group that works harder, not the group that's talented and gifted. I worry about the ones who are never told they are talented and gifted when, in fact, we know that they are. I worry about the kids who are shunted and stunted because, I think, deep within them is the opportunity to really change the world. So, I want every kid to have a seat at the table and, dammit, if no one is going to come and make us this table, we figured out here in the South Bronx how to build our own table and set it ourselves. And that's something everybody can do.

The kids you are talking about and the ones you taught were put in classes called 'special education.' That term didn't sit well with you. Why?

They should call it unique, because everybody is unique. There is this whole notion of diversity. Let's move beyond that and call it inclusive. It's one thing to say you are going to listen to someone. It's a whole other thing to get up and go to another group and ask someone from that group to dance with you to their music and to embrace them. Everybody deserves a seat at the table. And the beautiful thing about what I learned, remarkably about this whole green plant revolution, is that some of the most tedious jobs are so well done by those who are traditionally excluded. And they can make a living wage in the process. How beautiful is that?

The daffodil incident was your introduction to plants and the life-changing moment that led to your green curriculum and to the Green Bronx Machine. It's such a great story. Describe what happened.

The biggest thing about when they arrived was that when you get called to the principal's office, you think you're getting something good. I'm the oldest sixth grader in the world, and I get excited easily. So, they called, and I get this big box. I have 17 kids who are about as disconnected from school as disconnected can be, and I see this box and open it up. I'm thinking, "Wow! This is the moment I have been waiting for." Then I open it up and see … onions. It could not have been more disappointing! I had come running out of the principal's office like a kid on Christmas morning. I didn't even get back to my room. I opened the box in the hallway, I was so excited. It was the worst Christmas ever. I got to the classroom, threw the box on a windowsill behind the radiator and forgot about it.

Then, six weeks later, I got the biggest surprise in the world when I thought my career was really going out the window. I saw a male student grabbing something I thought was a weapon. I thought he was going to do something awful to the girl student because she was about to pummel this annoying kid to death. Then to see she was about to be cold-cocked by flowers waving in her face! It was like Ferdinand and the Bull! It was amazing! The world would be a better place if more adults read more children's books. ("The Story of Ferdinand" by Munro Leaf is a classic children's book known for its message of nonviolence and pacifism.)

Obviously, you didn't know anything about plants before that incident. After all, you thought the daffodil bulbs were onions. Just how transformational was that moment?

Well, that's the power of a plant. That's the beauty of a seed and its genetic potential. My job is to make sure all my students, all my colleagues and my community members reach their God-given genetic potential. And the flip side now is going back 10 years later, I still marvel. My kids this morning picked $38.52 worth of vegetables from the garden outside of school. We priced them out today. If I can put a little seed in the ground and get something out of it … I mean we've got an 8-foot-tall tomato plant growing in front of the school. It was a seedling 60 days ago. We've got corn growing in the middle of the South Bronx. It's awesome sauce! When you can put a tomato seed in the ground and get an 8-foot-tall plant out of it, that is my definition of awesome sauce.

Could you talk about how the children you inspired became the seeds that grew into the Green Bronx Machine?

We are, like most things, an evolutionary organism. We started as an innovative program for over-aged, under-credited, disconnected youths that's now become a way of life for everybody. We believe that the art and science of growing vegetables align to common core and content area instruction that has helped the students, helped the schools and has helped the communities as evidenced by test scores, eating habits and school performance. We grow vegetables, but my vegetables grow students and healthy communities.

How is The Green Bronx Machine different from other school garden programs, such as the national Farm to School program, the Captain Planet Foundation and The Kitchen Community that Kimbal Musk founded?

We are very different. I'm not saying better. And I'm not saying this with any judgment, but I do not want to be an after-school program. I love Captain Planet. Don't get me wrong. I love a lot of those organizations, but we believe in the art and science of growing vegetables indoors on a daily basis. They are an after-school enrichment program for kids who opt in. We are a whole school program. We believe that the art and science of growing vegetables aligns the content area instruction across all subject matter and that science forms academic performance through personal behaviors. And that is what this is all about.

Communities that are marginalized, that are suffering from hunger and are hurting really need to re-address every single thing they are doing if they want to transform their communities. You can’t transform a community with 40 minutes twice a week after school. You've got to transform pedagogies, you've got to transform instruction, you've got to transform culture, you've got to transform schools from the top down and the bottom up and be mindful that input equals output. What you put in will determine what you get out.

What we need to put in is quality educational instruction along with healthy food. Children never will be well read if they are not well fed. You can't teach your children to read and do things they've never done before and get excited about the world when they are hopped up on 95 grams of sugar, 300 milligrams of caffeine and having a toxic reaction to a bag of sodium-laced potato chips. So, I am not the garden guy! I'm the whole school guy. I just happened to get there by growing lots of vegetables, and I do it indoors using 90 percent less water and 90 percent less space regardless of seasonality. I have children who read the plants to get my reading data. We have a reading the plants program! We do math. We do science. We do essays. We do all that stuff around plants, and the coolest thing is that in 30 days we get to eat them, too!

How did the gardens move from school grounds, residential streets and even a roof top to a signature indoor garden that's been replicated in the U.S. Botanic Garden?

Everything that I wound up doing outdoors I learned how to do indoors. And now I'm doing it indoors to the tune of about 5,000 schools across America. The early part of the book is about over-aged, under-credited children … the forgotten youth, the disconnected youth. I had an epiphany a few years later when I ballooned myself to more than 300 pounds that it's easier to raise healthy children than it is to fix broken men. So, I wanted to take everything I was doing outside with outdoors gardens indoors. Now, we still have outdoor gardens. In fact, we have one that is going to be generating 5,000 pounds of food for cancer patients here in the Bronx that the children love tending to. I love seeing children playing in the dirt and getting dirty. I love seeing children have a water fight, but not when I'm the school principal! Not when I'm worried about academic performance and not when I'm worried about how my children are going to be prepared for college careers.

So, what I wanted to do was take all the outdoors success and turn it into indoor, project-based learning that translates into day-to-day academic goals and progress and good solid pedagogy. Not everybody wants to run a farm. And not everybody wants to build a green wall. So, I started zeroing in on replicable, scalable world-course portable technology. And, believe it or not, now I go from a box to a garden in 45 minutes if you are a man and 15 minutes if you are a woman — because the women watch the video and read the instructions. That's one classroom period, and there's no roof to climb and no trains they are waiting on to arrive. And now we're in a process where we grow over 100 bags of groceries a week indoors. And the coolest thing is that the little guys — the elementary school kids — are doing it. They even marched down to the principal's office and got chocolate banned from the cafeteria. They're taking on their parents. They're taking vegetables home and telling their parents how to use them, and how to cook them and why they should be eating them.

Why plants? What is it about plants that resonates so powerfully with children?

The cool thing about plants is that unlike animals, there is no poop to scoop. That's No 1. Then, there's nothing that eats their young, and there are no floaters at the top of the tank. Mostly if you know what you are doing with plants — and even if you don't — the plants will survive despite the children's best attempts to kill them. You let the children water them and talk to them and everything is an attempt to get to "Yes!"

They get excited about seeing things grow. They understand that living things in the world don’t necessarily have to fight or eat each other and that plants give off oxygen and can smell good and look pretty. That’s an awesome thing! You put a plant or a flower in a kid’s hand and they change. You can’t fight plants. You can’t have two plants fighting each other. I mean, there’s some interesting basic environmental relationships like basic species and other stuff. But, for the most part, kids get really excited about watering plants, tending to them and taking care of them. Inherently it’s very easy for them to succeed with that. For children who have never succeeded, succeeding in nature is absolutely critical.

Who is your audience? Who do you want to reach with this book?

I want to reach parents. I want to reach educators and inspire them. I want them to know that, look, I have gotten myself into the middle of something I never expected and it's impacted lives beyond any scale of my imagination. And that happened simply because I showed up, I stayed positive and I developed hard muscles on the back of my buttocks, which means I bounce back up pretty quickly. I have failed a lot, but failure hasn't defined me. It's helped shape me into being relentlessly entrepreneurial.

I want to inspire students. I want to give credence to the students who stuck by me all these years and thank all the grandparents and foster parents and wonderful people in marginalized communities, people who have been long forgotten. I want everyone to know that absolutely anything is possible. And I want to respect farmers. So, the book is written for everybody who just wanted some inspiration, perspiration, dedication and a simple blueprint to follow.

What advice would you give to parents, educators or others who might want to use plants to change the culture of their schools but are afraid to take the risks you did?

If I can, you can. We all can. We are Amer-I-CANS. African Amer-I-CANS. Mex-I-CANS. Domin-I-CANS. South Amer-I-CANS. Nobody's raising cans unless you choose to. The time to do nothing is never. We are the ones we are waiting for. If it wasn't for people who took bold steps before us, where would we be today? We'd still be banging rocks in caves.

How transferable is what you've done in the South Bronx to other schools, corporations or even personal relationships anywhere in America?

The book is about relentless optimism, passion, purpose and hope. All of these are absolutely transferable. This is what keeps us going. Unless you just want to sit around and have a cold rhetoric. That's going to get you nowhere. So, passion, purpose and hope are absolutely replicable. They are absolutely scalable. I got up on stage and told people culture eats strategy for breakfast. And here I am. I get to go and consult around the world now with Fortune 100 companies, to 50 firms where people wouldn't have let me in the door 10 years ago. Now they invite me in, and I get to take their money and give it to children. It's so cool.

Where do you go from here?

I don't know, but I'll be doing it in my cheese hat and bow tie! [Ritz’s students gave him many nicknames, one of which was Big Cheese. While in Wisconsin to speak at a green conference, he spotted a cheese hat in the Madison airport gift shop and knew he had to have it. "That goofy hat became my instant trademark," Ritz wrote in his book.]

To think that four years ago when I came up with this notion of putting tower gardens in schools and people thought I was insane. To think that we're now in 5,000 schools. To think that I have spread this mission across Canada. That I built out the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center in a 100-year-old building in the poorest congressional district in America, in the lowest-performing school district in America, in formerly in the lowest-performing school within that district and it is now being replicated around the world and in Dubai, that to me is pretty inspirational. That school is CS 55, Community School 55, which, when I arrived here, was Public School 55 and was slated to be closed.

[When the five-story school was built more than 100 years ago, the area was single-family homes and farms. Today, it is in a neighborhood called Claremont Village and is surrounded by towering housing projects. The nearest subway stop is 18 blocks away. "The forty-five thousand residents of this dense neighborhood are so cut off from the rest of New York, they might as well be living on their own island," Ritz wrote. “At CS 55, 100 percent of students are on free and reduced lunch. Across the community, 37.9 percent of residents are food insecure, lacking access to affordable nutrition."]

But I had this little vision. I was a Top 10 finalist for the Global Teacher Prize. I took that $25,000 prize money and donated it here and built something that is now being replicated all around the world. Think about this … in this classroom I am speaking from, four stories up in one of the most God-forsaken buildings in one of the most maligned communities in the world, we've had people from more than 60 countries and six continents come to the South Bronx and visit this classroom. Just this June, we had the global teacher prize winner from China come here. We're actually going to replicate this classroom in the Arctic tundra as well as in the middle of the Dubai sands! How cool is that?

Now I want to get to seven continents. If anyone reading this article knows anyone in Antarctica, please contact me! I'd like to have all seven continents come visit this class because I want to get into the Guinness Book of Records with seven continents represented in this classroom.

Is there anything we haven't talked about that you would like the Mother Nature Network audience to know?

Well, what I would like for them to know is that the book comes with a double-your-money back guarantee. If you buy the book and you don't like it, I am willing to buy it back from you for double the price. Hopefully, that will encourage people to buy the book. Proceeds from the book are going to support the Green Bronx Machine. Realize that this is an all-volunteer organization. We have a massive following on Facebook, so I would love for people to check us out. Like the website. If they want to make a donation, that's great. But, most importantly, make epic happen. Get out there and grow something great and get up every day and say, "See this plant."

In a time of global crisis, I want everyone to act like an immigrant. And what do immigrants do? They get to some foreign land, they spot an opportunity and they work like artisans to make epic happen. So, spot that opportunity, make it unique and make it individual and grow something great. That's what this is all about. We have gone from hope to the pope and from our greenhouse to the White House. To think that there is a model of my classroom in the U.S. Botanic Garden, it's mind-numbing. I didn't even know what I was doing. So, there's hope for everybody.

Ritz is available on a number of social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram. He also asked that we make his email address available, so you can email him at sritz@schools@nyc.gov.

 

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