Meet a Teacher Who Is Using Plants to Change Students’ Lives

By Kate Stoltzfus — July 19, 2017 6 min read
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In 2004, the discovery of a flower growing beneath a radiator disrupted a fight that was about to break out in Stephen Ritz’s classroom. That moment kicked off what the science teacher describes as a “movement” to grow student success by growing gardens in New York City’s poorest neighborhoods. And it seems to be working.

What started as an after-school program at Walton High School in the Bronx borough of New York City more than a decade ago is now a fully integrated core curriculum. Ritz’s recent book, The Power of a Plant (Rodale), co-written with journalist Suzie Boss, unpacks his efforts to merge K-12 education with urban agriculture, environmental sustainability, healthy eating, and 21st century workforce development.

Ritz quit his official teaching job in 2014 to found and direct—as a full-time school volunteer—the National Health, Wellness, & Learning Center at Community School 55 (or the Benjamin Franklin School), also in the Bronx. A vertical indoor garden, a training kitchen, and electricity-generating bicycles connect to lessons throughout the school day, after school, and on weekends, and have provided the community with more than 50,000 pounds of vegetables. Ritz’s nonprofit organization, Green Bronx Machine, provides summer camps, outdoor gardens all over New York City, and professional development for teachers.

But students aren’t just getting their hands dirty. In a community that has the highest unemployment rate in New York City, and in a school where 99 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch, the garden has had ripple effects on academic success. After one year of the program, C.S. 55 reduced behavioral incidents by 50 percent, and after a second year, the school increased its passing rates on 2015-16 state science exams by 45 percent. Students also want to come to school; classrooms have 94 percent daily attendance.

Ritz was a finalist for the Global Teacher Prize and invited to present at the White House in 2016. His many projects—from summer camps and outdoor gardens all over New York City to teacher professional development—have drawn praise from education leaders around the world. The center has been visited by educators from more than 60 countries, and techniques (including thousands of indoor learning gardens) are spreading to other classrooms.

Ritz recently spoke with Education Week Teacher about how other teachers can create their own green classrooms. The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

On the flower at Walton High School (which closed in 2009) that started it all:

One day, I get a call over the PSA to come to the principal’s office [to collect a package]. I rip the box open only to see things that look like onions. I throw it behind a standing radiator and forget about it. About six weeks later, there’s a fight breaking out in class...I see Gonzalez reaching under the radiator...But he comes up with this big flower. The box tore open and hundreds of flowers started falling out. My students and I went on to plant 15,000 daffodil bulbs around New York City, and we were invited to City Hall, and these kids who weren’t traditionally a part of success become a part of it overnight. Attendance soared from 40 to 93 percent, disciplinary issues dropped. This gave birth to a movement.

On building a plant-based curriculum:

I went from an after-school program and a workforce development program with overaged, underprivileged children, moving them into spheres of living-wage employment and self-esteem, to simply realizing that it is easier to raise healthy children than fix broken men. A lot of the problems I was facing were rooted in self-esteem, obesity, and nutrition. If I had started children at an earlier trajectory, the impact would be much greater for the rest of their lives, and I could build good habit onto good habit instead of having to unpack bad ones. I am not an after-school program or an add-on—it’s 100 percent built-in. I dedicated about two years of my life to researching the technology, learning how plants grow on a daily basis, aligning that growth to technology and the Common Core State Standards and instruction standards. The art and science of growing vegetables aligns to content-area instruction day to day, and scaffolding it into sequenced activities grows a healthy school.

On what the average day looks like:

It looks like 25 periods of in-class science instruction around the garden aligned with 25 periods of content-area instruction by subject area, day to day as the garden grows. We send 100 bags of groceries home a week [with students] in the South Bronx, all year long. We grow 37 kinds of fruits, vegetables, and herbs indoors and have some of the most prolific outdoor soil gardens in New York City. This year, my 4th and 5th graders are growing close to 5,000 pounds of organic food in soil to be donated to food-insecure chemotherapy patients.

On tying plants to learning standards:

Planting seeds is all about statistics, ratio, proportions, fractions, germination, expectation times, data. The children market the vegetables, they bring them into the cafeteria, they write argumentative essays. It is very easy to take all the work that they are doing on a daily basis because the garden is in the classroom—it goes bell to bell. I like to say my students are 21st-century “solutionaries.” The little guys helped ban chocolate milk in the school. When we did, protein and veggie consumption went through the roof, and food waste went down. When the kids did the research and found out how much sugar they were consuming on a daily basis, that was the advocacy piece, the argument piece, the research piece, the discussion and debate piece, and that was what they articulated brilliantly to the principal and the PTA. Hell knows no fury like a bunch of infuriated 4th and 5th graders.

On how the garden affects academic success:

Children respond to living things that don’t fight or bark or scream, and they respond to nurture and nature. In a community where children have limited means and limited access to plants, much less edible healthy food, they really take great pride and joy in that. The nice thing about environmental remediation and urban renewal and environmental restoration is that you can show up with kids who haven’t succeeded, and minute by minute and day by day, they see the results of their work. We had 100 percent graduation rates for cohort after cohort of students.

I was able to align the program to living-wage jobs and the environmental-restoration field. I have children who are installing green roofs and green walls, involved in the culinary space, working for the parks department, but it was that self-esteem, that sense of worth and purpose and place, that sense that we are all part of a living, breathing ecosystem connected to spheres of success that they never imagined before. This May, I celebrated the first cohort of children who graduated from college who were never expected to get into college or even graduate high school. They’re working in urban planning and renewal, as substance abuse counselors—kids who are growing something greater.

On how educators can make this work in their own classrooms:

In 2014, no one had tower gardens in classrooms. Today, we have over 5,000 schools using the technology. My advice is simple: Keep it small. Keep it simple. Celebrate success often. Do what you feel compelled to do, but always do it within the context of your day job. As much as I want to save the world, I’ve got to do it by making sure my school is high-performing and my students are learning each and every day. Begin with the end in mind. Don’t be afraid to fail. I can’t build new schools or create new classrooms, but I can put a plant in every classroom in the world. When you put a seed in a child’s hand, you’re making them a promise that that seed will become a plant. And they want to live to see that promise.

Photo credit: Green Bronx Machine

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.