Things to know about Stephen Ritz, one of NPR’s 50 Great Teachers:
He and his students made bow ties out of Scrabble tiles.
His Bronx classroom, a refurbished school library, has more plants than desks.
He calls the room his National Health, Wellness and Learning Center. It’s got tower gardens, gleaming cabinets and counters, an industrial sink and a new, mobile cooking station.
“In this class, we go from seed to tower to table to plate in 20 feet,” Ritz says.
“What we’re seeing is kids coming in here, getting excited about healthy food — about vegetables. About beans. Who knew beans could be so exciting, but they are!”
Ritz founded the nonprofit Green Bronx Machine, planting community gardens all over the Bronx.
Though he’s often at school six days a week, he’s paid for just one. He says it’s his wife who makes ends meet.
Ritz teaches science in the nation’s poorest congressional district, at Community School 55 in the South Bronx.
The neighborhood is a food desert, where Ritz says it’s easier to buy liquor than lettuce. He calls the food options a M.E.S.S. — “a manufactured, edible synthetic substance that comes in a Ziploc, hermetically sealed bag with infinite shelf life.”
Ritz’s goal: send students home with 100 bags of fresh, school-grown fruits and vegetables a week, 50 weeks a year.
In the afternoon, Ritz hosts a fourth-grade cooking class. On the menu: vegetarian chili.
Everyone gets a cooking hat, though not like Mister Ritz’s (he wears the cheesehead as a self-described “cheeseball”).
The kids are told to hold a knife like they’re shaking a hand, and hold the pepper with their fingers curled into a bear claw.
Fifth-grader Ernest Fields calls Ritz “Father Nature.”
At CS55, Ritz helps other teachers, too. He pops into one classroom for a quick science lesson on owl pellets.
“You’re gonna take apart this mouth poop,” Ritz asks the class, feigning disgust, “and put it back together again and make real skeletons?”
On his way out, he asks: “How many of you like science?” When they all raise their hands, “I love it,” he says, “more nerds.” The kids chant:
After school, Ritz hosts another cooking class, for kids and their parents.
Jeffrey Haywood (far left) brings his grandson, Cori (far right), a third-grader. Haywood says he can’t believe what Ritz is trying to do here. When he was a kid, Haywood says, “we didn’t have no plants growing in no schools. If anything, we was trying to get into the schools.”
Ritz got his green thumb many years ago while teaching at a Bronx high school. Someone sent him a box of daffodil bulbs. Not knowing what to do with them, he stashed them behind a radiator.
A few weeks later, a fight broke out. Ritz says one student ran to the radiator because, he assumed, the boy had hidden a weapon there. Instead, he found “hundreds of flowers busting out of this box. And the kid, instead of coming out to beat someone’s behind, came out with a box of flowers. The class burst out laughing.”
Ritz says he had an epiphany. He and his students went on to plant some 20,000 bulbs across New York that year.
The lesson, Ritz says, is that a seed well-planted can grow into something beautiful anywhere.
This story was reported by Cory Turner with photographs by Elissa Nadworny.