Today Stephen Ritz @StephenRitz grows 50,000 pounds of vegetables in the Bronx. As founder of the Green Bronx Machine, his students grow plants while learning more and going onto college. Exciting!
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Below is a transcript modified for your reading pleasure. For information on the guests and items mentioned in this show, scroll down to the bottom of this post.
The Power of a Plant with Stephen Ritz
Monday, August 21, 2017
50,000 pounds of Vegetables in the South Bronx
Vicki: Stephen Ritz @StephenRitz is with us today, a finalist from the 2015 Global Teacher Prize, and just a very excited amazing person who really has a green classroom. So, Stephen, describe for us what you’ve done in your classroom.
Stephan: Well, in the poorest Congressional district in the America in the least healthy county of all of New York state, in the largest stretch of public housing, in a 100+ year old building, we are growing food! And I mean tons of it. Fifty thousand pounds of vegetables! And fifty thousand pounds of vegetables later, my favorite crop is organically grown citizens. Grant you, it’s members of the middle class, it’s kids who are going to college.
But I took the money from the Global Teacher Prize and created this National Health Wellness and Learning Center, which is a state of the art facility, four stories up in a walk-up building, mind you, where we grow food, we cook, we have integrated science labs.
It is net positive on food and energy. We have bicycle-powered blenders. We have a Green Bronx Machine mobile classroom kitchen. We have solar generators, bicycle blenders, bicycle-powered kitchens, a TV studio. And it’s all low-cost, replicable, and of course, there are our incredible tower gardens where we are growing food in a food-insecure community using 90% less water, 90% less space, and sending home 100 bags of groceries per week. Aligns to content area, instruction, and Common Core Next Generation Science Standards.
What can any teacher do to add sustainable practices to their school?
Vicki: Wow! Now you have a book called The Power of a Plant which is going to help our teachers who are completely overwhelmed and have their jaw on the floor be able to do this, because is there something that an average everyday teacher can do, because it seems like so much!
Stephan: Well, nobody can do everything, but everyone can do something. That is the mantra and the premise behind my book, The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools.
I literally realized six years ago I was over 300 pounds myself, so The Power of a Plant really talks about so many things, but getting specifically to the book – the book will make you laugh, the book will make you cry. Realize I started teaching in 1984 when New York City, the South Bronx was in shambles and burnt to a crisp. So it highlights my odyssey, if you will, across pedagogy, across scaling, across dealing with administration, about dealing with your own personal tragedies and conflicts and challenges within the teaching profession. So it’s 100% inspiration, 100% perspiration, but it is a blueprint.
It also has a growing guide, all kinds of suggested tools. It has letters from students, letters from teachers, 45 luminaries have blurbed the book. Really, it’s designed for one thing – to help you make epic happen in your personal life, in your professional life, and in every single community you serve.
So. as we like to say in the South Bronx, “Si, se puede!” or “Yes, we can!” If I can, you can. That’s the purpose of this book, The Power of a Plant. In fact, it comes with a double-your-money-back guarantee. If you buy the book and don’t like it, I’ll buy it back for twice the price. All the proceeds are being donated to public education, so this is an opportunity for all of us to pay it forward and celebrate the profession that we all know and love.
What is a day in the life of a student at Stephen’s school like?
Vicki: Love it! OK, Stephen, could you take me through what a day of students that you work with, what they’ll do in a day with you?
Stephan: So, we believe – that’s a great question – we believe that the art and science of growing vegetables aligned to content area instruction grows healthy students, healthy schools, and high-performing resilient communities.
So, in the course of a day, you will come into this lab, where it’s 25 periods of weekly classroom instruction. Before school, lunchtime, after school and weekend programming. And you will get thematic science programming, aligned to Next Generation Science Standards. We do all the ratio, proportions, statistics and measuring aligned to seed propagation, so we touch on math. We touch on literacy, making prediction, doing measurements, if-then conditional statements, the whole art of ordinal direction, of prediction. Then we do a whole lot of science, we do a whole lot of cooking. Then this classroom is aligned to 25 periods of in class content area instruction.
So we believe that the art and science of growing vegetables and taking a garden and putting it at the heart of school, in a classroom, indoors, is not a band-aid so to speak but is a whole school solution. We are not an add on. We are a whole school program that really teaches children in food-insecure communities how to grow food, get the parents involved, brings parents in and aligns it.
Believe it or not, next week we are meeting with the State University of New York to create K-20 programming! Because the one thing about food and plants is that without all of it, we’d all be naked and hungry, and that’s not a thought that looks good on radio or sounds good either.
How do you have time to garden and teach school?
Vicki: (laughs) OK. So I’m a farmer’s daughter. I grew up on a farm. I’m trying to figure out when do the kids work in the garden? Growing plants is actually very hard work, as you know.
Stephan: Well, we have an indoor garden and an outdoor garden. So the outdoor garden is done after school, and not that I am anti-soil, I’m actually pro-soil and pro-garden-time but I’m actually very pro-instructional-time.
During the school day, our plants, our garden is indoors using aeroponic systems known as a tower garden, where the plants are literally growing themselves. The only thing that’s not happening is that they don’t take care of themselves, so the children take care of them, but no school uniforms are ruined, I have reading plant programs, I have leaf monitors, I have Ph patrols, you name it. Kids taking care of plants can document, collecting data, aggregating data, they’re talking about it, discussing it.
And we grew tremendous volumes of food, so deciding what we’re going to do with that food, what we’re going to do with the profits that we sell. Those are the kinds of collegial and professional conversations that really dictate a productive and proactive healthy school culture and climate.
And, it’s being evidenced in our test scores, our school report card, our teacher retention, our teacher satisfaction, our ability to attract new young dynamic teachers who LOVE coming to school in this state of the art facility.
And that’s what we do, so kids are in here literally from about 7:00 in the morning — another set will be coming in here soon – until 7:00 at night. We have about anywhere on any given day, 50-100 kids showing up after school in one of the most productive soil gardens in all of New York City — in the heart of a housing project, I might add – and we do cooking programs, TV shows.
We have our Green Bronx Machine (mobile kitchen) which is a state of the art food truck on wheels for a fraction of the cost which goes classroom to classroom. So it’s not only teaching kids to HAVE food, it’s teaching them what to do with it, giving parents access to it, giving grandparents access to it, and flooding our community with a whole new set of options aligned to help, wellness, and 21st Century college and career readiness.
Stephen’s 30-second Pep Talk for Every Teacher
Vicki: You’ve given us so much. It’s so very exciting. Could you give us a 30-second pep talk to every teacher out there listening about what they can do today?
Stephan: The secret sauce to all of my success is three things – passion, purpose and hope. And I believe that passion, purpose and hope will get you close. And sometimes you just need to take that endless leap of faith to get to the finish line. But teachers, don’t be afraid to fail. If anyone has perfected failing in life, it is me. But I have some hard buttocks, I bounce up quickly, and I keep falling up the ladder of success, saying “Please,” and “Thank you, and “Have a nice day,” and “How can we work to make things better?” And that’s what this is all about, growing the next generation of healthy students, healthy teachers, healthy schools, and healthy communities.
Vicki: Well, teachers. What we’ve heard is truly remarkable. Please go to the Shownotes. We’re giving away a book, The Power of a Plant. I’ve known Stephen for quite some time, and he always amazes me with how much he’s doing and how much we all need to be doing to be going green in our schools.
Full Bio As Submitted
Stephen Ritz, Founder of Green Bronx Machine, Top Ten Global Teacher Prize Finalist, one of NPR’s 50 Greatest Teachers and BAMMY Laureate – Elementary Educator of the Year is a South Bronx educator who believes that children should not have to leave their neighborhood to live, learn and earn in a better one.
Stephen and his students have grown more than 50,000 pounds of vegetables, indoors, farming their way to the White House and back, using 90% less water and space, en route to outstanding personal and school performance which is highlighted in his new book via Rodale: The Power of A Plant with co-author Suzie Boss. To learn more about Stephen’s revolutionary program, see this powerful new two-minute video via Chan Zuckerberg Initiative.