If you’re a longtime reader of this blog, you know I love to garden. It’s summer in the Pacific Northwest, and I just took my third load of juicy plums to the food bank. When I’m not writing fiction, you’ll find me outside growing things, and there’s nothing I love more than sharing fresh, organic food with people.
I am also a big fan of Donorschoose.org, an organization we have supported for many years. When we put on our NYC hats in the fall and winter, I also work in their offices. Recently I noticed a post (on Twitter, I think) that referenced South Bronx teacher Stephen Ritz, who has created a gardening revolution, using gardening to teach students a variety of subjects.
Stephen, as it turns out, has a book…so of course I bought it. While I normally stick to reviewing fiction here, I can’t help but share this book. If you are feeling uninspired about the state of the world today, Stephen Ritz and co-author Suzie Boss will lift you up.
The Power of a Plant: A Teacher’s Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools tells the story of a chance occurrence in his classroom one day, where the sudden appearance of daffodils broke up a fight, that led Ritz down his current path.
Prior to this event, Ritz had no gardening experience, but he always “knew a guy,” and thus found people to learn from. Through the lens of gardening, he taught math, science, and the importance of healthy eating. Along the way he managed to lose 100 pounds himself as he changed his own eating habits. He heads up the Green Bronx Machine, and his students have met the White House chef under Obama and received numerous awards for their work. Not too shabby for students who live in the poorest congressional district in the nation!
If you get a chance to see Stephen Ritz on YouTube, you’ll find a man larger than life, filled with such passion he appears almost as a madman, with flailing arms and bugging eyes. He is, quite literally, a force of nature. The Power of a Plant, though bursting with his incredible energy, is also an honest reflection about his journey that doesn’t shy away from his mistakes and political battles with school officials.
Reading his frustrations, I am reminded that sometimes in the garden, when a plant isn’t doing well, the solution is to move it to another spot where the light and moisture are more suited. Ritz had to make several moves to find a place where he wouldn’t feel stifled by school politics and other bureaucratic problems.
You don’t have to be a gardener to appreciate the changes he has wrought in the last decade-plus. This is a story to remind us we can all make a difference. Reading it, you may recall teachers who affected your lives as well.
Ritz still bases from the Bronx but travels the world lecturing and sharing his vision. From planting seeds in a single classroom he is now changing the world. We could all do well to learn from his example.