The Power of a Plant tells the engaging story of Bronx educator Stephen Ritz and his journey to embody his three Cs- “collisions, connections and co-learnings” through creating the Green Bronx Machine at the National Health, Wellness and Learning Center at CS55 in the South Bronx. Students learn a a variety of curriculum-tied skills while also learning about health, nutrition and the environment.
As he evolves from “Mista” in the 1980s to “Mr. Farmer Steve” in the 21st century, Ritz was inspired by his students’ brightness, creativity and hunger for positive reinforcement; working with special education students in the city’s poorest congressional district meant that positive reinforcement was the last thing his kid were getting. By encouraging each student to “make your thinking visible” helped students to gain the confidence to take on ever-more complex problems. Soon students who had been basically written off as hopeless were taking on beautifying projects in the South Bronx and making the evening news.
Ritz’s enthusiastic, never-say-never personality and media savvy have taken him and the Green Bronx Machine far, from Hunts Point to Dubai to the White House and back again. His pedagogy involves designing and setting up hydroponic farms, nurturing and harvesting the plants and learning to cook and eat them. The lessons involved include geometry, chemistry, physics, linear algebra, biology, botany, culinary science, industrial design and of course language and communication skills. Older students mentor younger ones and learn about the joys of passing on their knowledge and experience. And of course, the most delicious vegetables are the ones you grow yourself, so the Green Bronx Machine instills potentially lifelong tastes and habits that are healthy and environmentally conscientious.
Along the way, Ritz chronicles his own changes and ups-and-downs, and the ways that the many interesting characters he meets along the way influenced his life and work. It’s inspiring to read about the transformations of children exposed to a different way of learning altogether- one that has the ability to change the way they see themselves and their possibilities in the future.