The Power of a Plant: A Teacher's Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools

The Power of a Plant: A Teacher's Odyssey to Grow Healthy Minds and Schools

by Stephen Ritz, Suzie Boss


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In The Power of a Plant, globally acclaimed teacher and self-proclaimed CEO (Chief Eternal Optimist) Stephen Ritz shows you how, in one of the nation’s poorest communities, his students thrive in school and in life by growing, cooking, eating, and sharing the bounty of their green classroom.

What if we taught students that they have as much potential as a seed? That in the right conditions, they can grow into something great?

These are the questions that Stephen Ritz—who became a teacher more than 30 years ago—sought to answer in 2004 in a South Bronx high school plagued by rampant crime and a dismal graduation rate. After what can only be defined as a cosmic experience when a flower broke up a fight in his classroom, he saw a way to start tackling his school’s problems: plants. He flipped his curriculum to integrate gardening as an entry point for all learning and inadvertently created an international phenomenon. As Ritz likes to say, “Fifty thousand pounds of vegetables later, my favorite crop is organically grown citizens who are growing and eating themselves into good health and amazing opportunities.”

The Power of a Plant tells the story of a green teacher from the Bronx who let one idea germinate into a movement and changed his students’ lives by learning alongside them. Since greening his curriculum, Ritz has seen near-perfect attendance and graduation rates, dramatically increased passing rates on state exams, and behavioral incidents slashed in half. In the poorest congressional district in America, he has helped create 2,200 local jobs and built farms and gardens while changing landscapes and mindsets for residents, students, and colleagues. Along the way, Ritz lost more than 100 pounds by eating the food that he and his students grow in school. The Power of a Plant is his story of hope, resilience, regeneration, and optimism.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781623368647
Publisher: Potter/Ten Speed/Harmony/Rodale
Publication date: 05/02/2017
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 327,826
Product dimensions: 6.30(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Stephen Ritz, founder of Green Bronx Machine, has devoted his teaching career to improving health and academic results for children in the South Bronx. Now he is partnering with organizations from Canada to Dubai and Colombia to Cairo to bring the power of a plant to children and communities everywhere. A Top 10 Finalist for the Global Teacher Prize and one of NPR’s 50 Greatest Teachers, he has presented at the White House on two separate occasions and had his classroom modeled by the U.S. Botanic Garden. His work has been featured by major media and documentaries, including Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, and his TEDx talk has been viewed over one million times. Dubbed the Pied Piper of Peas, Ritz and his family reside in the Bronx and continue to farm with children all year round. His demonstration classroom, the National Health, Wellness, and Learning Center, is located at Community School 55 in the South Bronx.

Read an Excerpt


Summer 1984—I hobbled down the metal stairs of the Jackson Avenue subway stop in the South Bronx with my knee in a brace that ran from my thigh to my ankle. It was so hot, it felt like even the sidewalks were sweating. I was on my way to interview for my first teaching job and didn’t want to be late.
Like so many young men in my neighborhood who came of age in the early 1980s, I dreamed of finding glory and fortune on the basketball courts. And why not? I was six foot three and wiry, with bottomless energy, a reliable three-point shot, twenty-eight-inch waist, and blue suede Puma sneakers. I could jump pretty well for a white guy, too. Four years of college had given me untold hours to work on my game and party as hard as the cast from Animal House. My goals in college were to spend as much time as possible on the basketball court, make art, and meet girls. It was as if I had been invited to a four-year happy hour. By graduation time, I knew happy very, very well. If I had scholarly classmates who sweated over tests and essays, our paths didn’t intersect.
I didn’t think about what came next until I graduated, and then I didn’t have a clue. I tried playing pro ball during a postgraduation trip to Israel to visit my grandmother. That’s where I tore up my knee. The long flight home to New York gave me time to ponder my next career move. My mother, a teacher herself, had told me about the massive shortages facing New York City schools. At her urging, I had taken the test to get a temporary teaching certificate before I headed overseas. While I was away, she fielded calls from principals desperate to interview me.
So here I was, ready to give teaching a try. My flight home from Israel had arrived hours late. I had to go to the interview straight from JFK Airport. There was no time to change clothes, let alone stop at a barbershop and tame my mop of curly hair that had been growing all summer. From the neck up, I looked like Peter Frampton with a sunburn. But my legs were whiter than Larry Bird’s. Dressed in high-tops and still in my extra-short basketball shorts, I made my way toward my interview as fast as my awkward knee immobilizer would allow.
The scene at street level stopped me cold. Underneath the elevated tracks on Westchester Avenue, every surface was covered in graffiti and gang tags. The trains rumbling overhead were like moving murals of spray-painted art. Across the street squatted a one-story, red brick post office with bulletproof windows. Delivery trucks idled in front of the meat warehouse on the opposite corner. Beyond that, what passed for community seemed to just . . . stop. The Bronx that I knew from my boyhood, a place I had romanticized in memory, was long gone. This Bronx might as well have been a scene from post–World War II Germany.
Lot after lot was abandoned. A fire hydrant spewed water onto the empty street. Piles of bricks, scorched mattresses, twisted metal, and other debris were the only remnants of the apartment buildings that had been burned and bulldozed. Others were simply left standing to rot. Waves of arson fires and vandalism had swept through this neighborhood a decade earlier, and the place still looked scorched and forgotten. Even though I grew up in the Bronx, I had been away long enough to see it with fresh eyes. The destruction felt so recent and so all pervasive, I could practically smell the smoke.
Looming on the horizon like a massive stage set, rising up and out of St. Ann’s Avenue, was the five-story silhouette of South Bronx High School. It looked haunted. Except for one adjacent building, there was nothing much around it in an eight-block area except blue sky and charred remains. The distant Manhattan skyline could have been from another planet.
“Man, no way you want to teach at South Bronx,” my friend T.C. had warned me when I told him about my interview.
“Why not?” I countered. “We both grew up in the Bronx.” I left out one important detail. A decade earlier, my parents had fled the excitement of the Bronx for the suburban safety of Rockland County, New York.
“Not South Bronx,” he reminded me.
Despite T.C.’s warnings, I wasn’t worried. “You know me,” I told him. “I can get along with anybody, anywhere.” Knowing the crowd of characters I hung out with, he didn’t disagree.
As I started making my way up St. Ann’s Avenue, I replayed the warnings about the drugs and violence that I’d heard about this neighborhood. Heroin had ravaged the community in the 1960s, followed by a swift and unrelenting wave of cheap cocaine in the late 1970s. Now it was crack: the fast food of street drugs. Anybody with three bucks in his pocket could buy in and get insanely high, if only for ninety seconds.
St. Mary’s Park, a few blocks on the other side of the train tracks, was designed a century earlier to be an urban paradise. Paths meandered gracefully through greenery, punctuated by big granite boulders. This former oasis had become an open-air drug bazaar. You couldn’t walk through it now without hearing the crunch of crack vials under your shoes. Every day, garbage trucks were filled to the brim with nothing but discarded drug paraphernalia.
When I was a block away from the school, a movement on the top floor caught my eye. Without warning, a chair came flying out of an open window and made a silent and graceful arch toward the street before smacking the asphalt. It bounced and bounced and bounced until it came to rest. The whole scene looked surreal, like a movie in slow motion. The kid who hurled the chair pulled his head back indoors without a word. Nobody came outside to investigate. The only car on the street swerved around the broken chair without slowing down.
Maybe it was youthful bravado or maybe I just really needed a job, but those first impressions didn’t scare me off. To the contrary, I figured this was the new normal. I simply continued inside the school, where I found the principal holed up in his office. Without ever looking up, he made a quick phone call and introduced me to my soon-to-be supervisor. When the supervisor and I got in the elevator to go up to the fifth floor for the interview, the elevator lurched and dropped dramatically. The doors opened on the bowels of the ancient building. The supervisor stepped out and, without a trace of irony, said, “Hmm, this doesn’t look like the fifth floor.”

Right then and there, I knew I couldn’t go wrong here. The expectations were so low, any warm body would do. In 1984, at South Bronx High School, the bar for teacher competence was simply being able to move your time card from left to right. Punch in on time and that was it! When the supervisor asked me about my background in math and science, I told him I’d taken some science classes in high school. In fact, I had aced the Regents Exam in biology.
“Great!” he said. “You’ll be wonderful.”
On the spot, I accepted his offer to teach every subject to a self-contained class of special education students for something like $9,000 a year. I had no idea what I was getting into.
On the first day of class, the assistant principal stopped me just outside my classroom door. “Here’s your room key, your key to the faculty bathroom, and your chalk,” he said. He handed me five class rosters filled with names.
“Wait, how long is this supposed to last?” I asked him, peering into the flimsy box that held twenty pieces of chalk to use on my cracked blackboard.
“Best wishes—good luck!” he called out over his shoulder as he disappeared down the hall. That was it, Teaching 101. And so it began: no credentials, no specific degree needed, no special training, not even a workshop, pep session, or tutorial. All it took to get a teaching job in 1984 was a four-year degree in anything, a simple test requiring no preparation or content, and a heartbeat. For me, this seemed like a perfect fit.
While I was taking roll that first day, I paused to make eye contact with each student and did my best to memorize every name. At twenty-one, I was the same age as my oldest students who had been held back so many times, they were about to age out of public education while I was just aging in. Many of the boys had more facial hair than I did. The girls had way more attitude. Some students were brand-new immigrants to America, wide-eyed about the promise of public school. Others knew the system all too well; it had failed them for years.
When I called out Vanessa’s name, I heard chuckles from the back of the room. “Is she here?” I asked, wondering if she was one of the students who appeared to be napping on their desks. “Do we need to wake her up?”

“Don’t worry. We all know when Vanessa’s here,” promised a boy with a knowing look.
The first day Vanessa bothered to show up for class, I heard her coming before she arrived. Just outside my doorway, she shouted an angry promise down the hall and over her shoulder, “What the fuck, yo? I’ll beat your ass.”
I didn’t see who she was yelling at, but I couldn’t miss Vanessa. This big, belligerent voice came from a short, stocky body. Shaped like a whiskey barrel with arms, she overflowed with fury and aggression. And why? Because it was Tuesday. Because the sun was up. Vanessa didn’t need a reason to be mad at the world. She caught me watching her and glared right back. She lifted one eyebrow slightly as if to ask, “You gonna fuck with me, too?”
Right away, she asked for a hall pass so she could go hang with her friends. Everybody, and especially the boys, watched to see what would happen next. We all knew the principal’s ironclad rule: no hall passes during the first five minutes or last five minutes of class. Keeping kids in their seats was his weak solution to curtail fighting in the hallways and bathrooms. He was so insistent on this rule, he made me sign an agreement to abide by it. In fact, that was the only bit of teacher training I was given as preparation for my new job.
“Please take a seat,” I suggested.
Vanessa gave me the hard stare that other teachers and even some of her classmates had come to fear. Anything might set her off. That morning, I held the match.
“Look,” I started, “maybe that works with other teachers. But not with me. This is a two-way street. You give what you get and get what you give. You need to be in class.”
“You don’t know what I need,” she shot back. “You can’t understand me.”
“I understand that if you want to learn anything, you have to put in the effort, and that starts with showing up.”
“What do you know about what we go through? What do you know about Hispanics? About the Bronx? You don’t know nothin’. You’re here to get a paycheck. And you’re just white. Gringo, go home!”
Although I could not argue with her about my skin color, I simply said, “You know what, you don’t know me.” Keeping my voice calmer than I felt, and looking her dead in the eye, I respectfully asked her to take a seat. This time she complied, and I thanked her.
Vanessa looked shocked when I found her outside at lunchtime and handed her half my sandwich. I didn’t brown-bag or eat the slop in the school cafeteria. Instead, I had acquired a taste for the sandwiches made at a local deli. “Let’s get to know each other,” I suggested. “This is going to be a long-term relationship, not a drive-by.”
“Are you serious, yo?” she said. “You’re giving me half?” That made a deeper impression on her than the fact that I was using my own break time to sit down with her. In a neighborhood where children are lucky to get crumbs, half a Boar’s Head ham and cheese with mayo—known as the “ghetto gold standard of sandwiches”—is a windfall.
Over many lunches in the weeks that followed, I learned more about her story. Her older brother, deep into drugs, consumed her mother’s attention. Vanessa was determined to prove that she could be just as bad if that’s what it took to get noticed. Behind that tough exterior, she was hiding superior coping, avoidance, and survival skills. She could be as mean as a pit bull or, when it suited her, as charming as a poodle.
Her sharp intellect came out in flashes, like when she would deliver a highly sophisticated, exuberantly profane analysis of why public housing sucked. She didn’t hesitate to bully other students, smoke weed at recess, or frighten teachers with her temper. When she arrived in my classroom with sweet breath, acting goofy, I knew that she (like so many others) had stopped in the bathroom to guzzle a bottle of Calvin Cooler. This cheap and sugary wine cooler was marketed so heavily in the neighborhood that my students called it Ghetto Kool-Aid. Cheaper than milk or juice, and available in every color of the rainbow, it was often the breakfast beverage of choice that made school far more tolerable for students.
Vanessa had no intention of doing homework or following any rules unless they suited her. Most days, though, we managed to get along. On great days, she ran the class for me. A natural leader, Vanessa could quiet an unruly class with a look or get everyone focused on the lesson with an insightful question. When she wanted to learn, it was game on for all.

As a rookie teacher, I didn’t know the meaning of pedagogy. My goal was to stay one lesson ahead of my students. It wasn’t hard with the science textbooks I found in the basement. Many of them were written in the 1950s or 1960s. We were reading aloud in class one day when a student raised his hand and said, “It says here, ‘One day, man will go to the moon.’”
Another student chimed in, “Yo, you think that’s possible?” His question made me doubt my own memory for a moment. Was I imagining that moon landing or did it really happen?
When I told them about Neil Armstrong and his giant leap for mankind, they just shrugged. Michael Jackson was moonwalking his way across America—that was all the lunar knowledge my students understood. For them, a space suit was a black leather jacket with three zippers. For many, information came live and direct via MTV.
To compensate for my lack of training, limited supplies, and outdated materials, I trusted my instincts. Growing up in the Bronx in the 1960s and ’70s had taught me to read the unwritten rules. In densely packed urban spaces, people are constantly sizing each other up. You figure out at a glance whom you can trust, who’s willing to make eye contact, and who’s hiding an attitude behind sunglasses. A handshake and a promise are as binding as a legal contract. Playing ball taught me more about the value of straight talk. You don’t say you can dunk; you just do it. Actions count more than words. To win a bet about my athletic abilities, I had once jumped over a Yugo parked at a South Bronx curb. I collected my payoff and jumped back over it again.
I still lived by the same rules I’d learned as a boy. As seemingly lawless as the Bronx had become, here and now those rules still mattered. My classroom wasn’t apart from the world my students inhabited; it was a part of the same living ecosystem.

Table of Contents

Preface ix

Acknowledgments xi

Authors xiii

Chapter 1 Introduction 1

1.1 Background on Animal Movement 1

1.1.1 Population Dynamics 3

1.1.2 Spatial Redistribution 4

1.1.3 Home Ranges, Territories, and Groups 6

1.1.4 Group Movement and Dynamics 7

1.1.5 Informed Dispersal and Prospecting 8

1.1.6 Memory 8

1.1.7 Individual Condition 9

1.1.8 Energy Balance 10

1.1.9 Food Provision 10

1.1.10 Encounter Rates and Patterns 10

1.2 Telemetry Data 12

1.3 Notation 14

1.4 Statistical Concepts 15

1.5 Additional Reading 17

Chapter 2 Statistics for Spatial Data 19

2.1 Point Processes 19

2.1.1 Homogeneous SPPs 21

2.1.2 Density Estimation 23

2.1.3 Parametric Models 25

2.2 Continuous Spatial Processes 28

2.2.1 Modeling and Parameter Estimation 29

2.2.2 Prediction 34

2.2.3 Restricted Maximum Likelihood 35

2.2.4 Bayesian Geostatistics 36

2.3 Discrete Spatial Processes 39

2.3.1 Descriptive Statistics 40

2.3.2 Models for Discrete Spatial Processes 43

2.4 Spatial Confounding 47

2.5 Dimension Reduction Methods 48

2.5.1 Reducing Necessary Calculations 48

2.5.2 Reduced-Rank Models 49

2.5.3 Predictive Processes 51

2.6 Additional Reading 54

Chapter 3 Statistics for Temporal Data 55

3.1 Univariate Time Series 55

3.1.1 Descriptive Statistics 57

3.1.2 Models for Univariate Temporal Data 60 Autoregressive Models 60 Moving Average Models 65 Backshift Notation 66 Differencing in Time Series Models 68 Fitting Time Series Models 68

3.1.3 Forecasting 71

3.1.4 Additional Univariate Time Series Notes 73

3.1.5 Temporally Varying Coefficient Models 74

3.1.6 Temporal Point Processes 77

3.2 Multivariate Time Series 83

3.2.1 Vector Autoregressive Models 83

3.2.2 Implementation 87

3.3 Hierarchical Time Series Models 88

3.3.1 Measurement Error 89

3.3.2 Hidden Markov Models 91

3.3.3 Upscaling 92 Implementation: Kalman Approaches 94 Implementation: Bayesian Approaches 96

3.4 Additional Reading 98

Chapter 4 Point Process Models 99

4.1 Space Use 99

4.1.1 Home Range 101

4.1.2 Core Areas 103

4.2 Resource Selection Functions 107

4.2.1 Implementation of RSF Models 110

4.2.2 Efficient Computation of RSF Integrals 113

4.3 Resource Utilization Functions 117

4.4 Autocorrelation 121

4.5 Population-Level Inference 123

4.6 Measurement Error 127

4.7 Spatio-Temporal Point Process Models 131

4.7.1 General Spatio-Temporal Point Processes 132

4.7.2 Conditional STPP Models for Telemetry Data 134

4.7.3 Full STPP Model for Telemetry Data 138

4.7.4 STPPs as Spatial Point Processes 141

4.8 Additional Reading 145

Chapter 5 Discrete-Time Models 147

5.1 Position Models 147

5.1.1 Random Walk 147

5.1.2 Attraction 150

5.1.3 Measurement Error 150

5.1.4 Temporal Alignment (Irregular Data) 153

5.1.5 Heterogeneous Behavior 153

5.2 Velocity Models 158

5.2.1 Modeling Movement Parameters 162

5.2.2 Generalized State-Switching Models 168

5.2.3 Response to Spatial Features 175

5.2.4 Direct Dynamics in Movement Parameters 176

5.2.5 Patch Transitions 178

5.2.6 Auxiliary Data 182

5.2.7 Population-Level Inference 186

5.3 Additional Reading 187

Chapter 6 Continuous-Time Models 189

6.1 Lagrangian versus Eulerian Perspectives 189

6.2 Stochastic Differential Equations 192

6.3 Brownian Bridges 195

6.4 Attraction and Drift 197

6.5 Ornstein-Uhlenbeck Models 199

6.6 Potential Functions 202

6.7 Smooth Brownian Movement Models 211

6.7.1 Velocity-Based Stochastic Process Models 212

6.7.2 Functional Movement Models and Covariance 217

6.7.3 Implementing Functional Movement Models 219

6.7.4 Phenomenological Functional Movement Models 220

6.7.5 Velocity-Based Ornstein-Uhlenbeck Models 223

6.7.6 Resource Selection and Ornstein-Uhlenbeck Models 229

6.7.7 Prediction Using Ornstein-Uhlenbeck Models 231

6.8 Connections among Discrete and Continuous Models 235

6.9 Additional Reading 238

Chapter 7 Secondary Models and Inference 239

7.1 Multiple Imputation 239

7.2 Transitions in Discrete Space 241

7.3 Transitions in Continuous Space 246

7.4 Generalized Models for Transitions in Discrete Space 253

7.5 Connections with Point Process Models 256

7.5.1 Continuous-Time Models 256

7.5.2 Discrete-Time Models 263

7.6 Additional Reading 267

Glossary 269

References 273

Author Index 291

Subject Index 299

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