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The Chief Eternal Optimist of Bronx County

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I grew this!
Stephen Ritz introduces himself as the “Chief Eternal Optimist of Bronx County”.

It’s a place that needs optimism.

The Bronx is a tough neighborhood with high unemployment and the rumble of food insecurity. The New York City Coalition Against Hunger reported in December, 2013 that nearly 49 percent of Bronx children lived in a household with an inconsistent food supply.
Equally alarming, children in the Bronx have little access to fresh food, often eating foods high in sugar and fat, but low in nutritional value.
“We have some of the greatest rates of juvenile diabetes and juvenile obesity in the nation,” Ritz says. “And we can change that. We absolutely have the power to change schools in this generation.”

So where does Ritz get this optimism?
He grows it—with his students.

“The excitement and joy that these little kids feel putting a seed in the ground and watching it blossom—OMG! “ Ritz exclaims. “It’s game changing! It’s empowering!”
“When they know that they can grow their own, they really start changing the way they see their relationship to the world and their place in it,” Ritz says. “They are growing, the plants are growing, and they are responsible for it.”

Vegetables are sprouting in trays, on walls, and from the sides of tower gardens. This growing infuses the classroom—and their lessons. Students learn the science of nutrition and growth. Names of vegetables teach consonant blends. The price of supplies and earnings help students learn math. Growing puts green in their wallets and trains students for jobs and business. With their learning aligned with their lives, students can create, taste and count real reasons to come to school. School attendance grew from 40 percent to 93 percent. Students are heading to college, not jail.

“For so many, food is the problem. Yet for all of us, food is a solution,” Ritz says.

In places adults didn’t think could grow plants, Ritz and his students are growing an answer to poor prenatal nutrition, the cause of 70 percent of learning disabilities. They are growing an answer to dropping out, unemployment and powerlessness with relevant learning, work and constant encouragement. “We are Ameri-CANS!, not Ameri-can’ts, “ Ritz proclaims.

“I’m not a farmer,” Ritz says, “But I’m planting. I’m planting seeds.”

Ritz has planted success in his students with this approach. But there is only one Stephen Ritz. How do we grow crops of transformative teachers and learning projects?

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STEM Learning in the Garden

I grew this! 
Shows girl with carrot.
I grew this!

Students can learn STEM by growing and studying in gardens

STEM Learning in the Garden

As teachers and administrators search for ways to improve student performance, they should look in the garden.

Learning in the garden is real, alive and surprising. Here discoveries of “bugs!” and “worms!” are shouted out and children run to the discoveries.            Suddenly the questions aren’t coming from the teacher; they are coming from the students eager to observe, learn and understand their world.

The gold of classroom learning is the“Ah Ha” moment when the student makes a discovery or connection.
The garden is full of “Ah Ha’s” but it also has the “Umph” moments of exercise, the “Yum Yum” moments of tasting and the “We Did It!” moments of accomplishment. While say we are growing a garden, we are really growing children who become stronger through exercise, healthier through better diets, and more powerful with their learning and actions.

Dig out one shovel of soil and you have a lesson in geology, archeology, chemistry and biology.

Why is the soil here different than the soil two feet down or over by the wall?  What is this rock and how was it made?  Where did that piece of tile, metal or root come from? What was here before? Can you see the roots, insects and larvae in the soil? What do they consume?  How does water percolate through the soil?

What do plants need from the soil? 

Here are questions about chemistry, biology and botany. How can we test and amend the soil to provide the right combination of nutrients for this plant? What crops and rotations can replenish the soil?

What will we plant?

Here are questions about how we use and value plants.  Where did these plants come from?  How have they been used for foods, medicines, spices, teas, baskets, building materials and clothes and dyes?  How foods become part of our cultural identity. How we can grow and distribute food to create healthier families, profits or materials?

Where will we plant?

Here are questions that involve the rotation earth around the sun, an understanding of the soil, drainage, sun exposure, the needs of particular plants, the design of the garden and paths.  The garden is a world that our children can help build.

How will we tend the garden?

Here are questions about the needs of different plants, different seasons and different helpers. School gardens are a perfect opportunity to create collaboration among students, parents and teachers as they work together.  Who will tend the plants during the summer?

How will we share our produce?

Here are questions of sharing and earning that go to the core of our ethical and economic systems. How much do we give away? Do we sell it? How can we provide nutrition to mothers and newborns so our children grow up without learning disabilities?

Want common core observations and analysis? STEM learning?

In the garden students observe and interact with complex systems:air, water, sun, temperature, soil, plants, insects and animals. What are the needs of our plants and how can we create the right combination of conditions to create better crops? Our children learn to observe, test, create solutions and improve outcomes.  Perhaps the best lessons are that a garden is never done and that there is always next year.


Plant a seed and watch it grow
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This simple act reveals the awe of life and our responsibility to care and nurture living things.

Longer Reach of the Teach

Numerous studies show that outdoor education improves test scores for children.
But when you see the bright eyes and smiles of children who are excited by their discoveries and accomplishments you will truly understand the importance of this learning. Students who are bored in class can come alive with the real learning and active work of a garden. You will be amazed at how well your garden will grow your students. This is learning as fresh and tasty as a pea plucked from the vine.