Sing the fight song of Community School 55, the happily growing Green Bronx Machine.
Stephen Ritz wants to go beyond sustainability. He prefers words like restorative and regenerative, and the real seeds of his plant-based school curriculum are students. This award-winning educator is cultivating citizens of the world by growing food at CS 55, a community school in the Bronx. “I’m growing food four stories up in a 100-year-old building,” Ritz says with satisfaction. Earlier that day, his crew from what’s now called the Green Bronx Machine (greenbronxmachine.org) delivered some 400 bags of leafy greens to cancer recoverers—leafy greens the students had grown in their classroom. His vision? World peace—in a world where every child has healthy food and education to develop their potential.
Ritz’s awakening to the power of living plants in a classroom happened three decades ago, when a box of donated bulbs was stashed beneath a radiator, causing the daffodils to bloom out of season. Simply having that box spill its contents defused a fight and shifted the entire demeanor of the classroom—which led to the first of his students planting bulbs in a park and then starting to grow food. Growing turned out to improve behavior, which made the whole school run more smoothly. Disciplinary issues dropped by more than 50 percent that first year.
“It didn’t take a miracle to change behavior,” Ritz writes in The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools. “Students would conduct themselves beautifully for the chance to make a smoothie or spend time in my room tending the plants. These little incentives were all they needed. Instead of the traditional disciplinary system of carrots and sticks, we focused on carrots. We had a new cheer to go with our Sí, se puede! [Yes, we can!] attitude as the children proclaimed, ‘Lettuce, turnip, the beet!’”
Over the years, Ritz has sought out collaborators and allies and involved his students in every aspect of urban gardening—while developing a plant-based curriculum that is being replicated around the world. In his classroom, kids only have to travel about 20 steps from tower garden to table to tummy. And they have a sensory memory of the day to reinforce the learning.
Says Ritz, “I know that our Green Bronx Machine model is scalable, replicable, and adaptable to almost any community. If it works in the Bronx, where daily challenges can seem insurmountable, I’m convinced it can work anywhere.”
He continues, “You need to start with a champion. Someone has to love this idea enough to bring it to life. Who’s going to be so enthusiastic that others can’t wait to join? Who’s going to create the right culture so that the program can take root and thrive? Who’s going to be the Dean of Awesomeness? That excitement about the learning experience—the sense of possibility—is what makes all the equipment, curriculum, and teacher development add up to something greater. That’s why I always encourage schools to take our model and add their own secret sauce of passion, purpose, and hope.
“While the curriculum is driven by my passion for health, wellness, nutrition, and gardening, it is grounded in what I have learned about effective, engaging instruction and the use of data, assessment, student voice and choice, and constructive self-assessment and feedback that helps all students and all teachers succeed. I’m not out to put gardens in schools; I’m determined to wrap schools, content, subject-area instruction, and the entire academic experience around project-based learning and deep, authentic learning experiences that inspire healthy living in line with people, planet, and 21st-century opportunities. I am and remain an equity warrior and strive to be a voice for the voiceless until they learn to speak for themselves. I am determined to end hunger, poverty, and educational inequity in this lifetime—win, win, win—Sí, se puede!”
The New School at Dubai’s “Sustainable City”
I caught up with Stephen Ritz while he was waiting to catch a flight to Dubai for the opening of Fairgreen International School (fairgreen.ae), which is based on a design developed by Ritz, in what’s called The Sustainable City. This ultramodern community is designed around gardens inside “bio-domes” that are powered by solar panels and use recycled gray water. In fact the entire community is working to be net-positive on food and energy—smack in the middle of the desert. Not only is this new community an environmental success, it has been rated the happiest community in Dubai—and now it starts with kids growing food.
What you can do
If you have 10 minutes: Take the Ritz Challenge: Write down your answer to “What will you do to make ‘epic’ happen?”
If you have $15: Buy & share The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools.
If you have 2 hours: Work in your local community garden as you contemplate your own ‘epic’ challenge.
If you have $1,000: Donate a tower garden to the Green Bronx Machine, a curriculum for a lifetime. greenbronxmachine.org