Every child should have a teacher like Stephen Ritz. In fact, even adults who encounter the educator are regularly called to action by his unique blend of passion, purpose and hope.
Ritz is returning to Dubai in March for the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature, where he'll speak about his remarkable personal journey and resultant book. The Power of a Plant charts how this formidable educator has been sowing the seeds of change in some of America's most deprived and challenged communities, one child and one plant at a time.
The book is rich with metaphors and observations about how nurturing seeds leads to a wider sense of community cohesion. “Teach children how to care for a living thing and you’ve given them something no textbook can provide,” Ritz tells me. “When we teach children about nature, we teach them to nurture. And when we teach children to nurture, we as a society collectively embrace our better nature.”
A teacher since 1984, Ritz has spawned a green movement, dubbed the Green Bronx Machine, as well as new teaching models that have had an enormous impact on disenfranchised children in some of the poorest neighbourhoods and schools in the Unites States. In doing so, he has transformed lives – creating brighter, healthier futures and careers for young people who may have otherwise slipped between the cracks.
And it all began with a box of bulbs stuffed behind a radiator.
Ritz first visited the UAE in 2015, as one of the top 10 finalists of the Global Teacher Prize, a US $1 million (Dh3.6m) award that recognises an outstanding contribution made by those in education. While he may not have scooped the top prize, he took the $25,000 award (Dh91,823) that he did win back to his school in New York's South Bronx. He used the money to create a prototype for a green classroom that is now being copied in Dubai to teach UAE children about the principles of growing food, sustainability and nutrition.
When I interview Ritz via video conference at 7am New York time, he is almost bouncing out of the screen as he takes me on a virtual tour of his classroom. Every cent he was awarded went back into education – and topped up with a little fundraising, he’s created a classroom and urban farm that features aquaponics and hydroponics systems, and produces 37 kinds of fruit, vegetables, herbs and edible flowers.
The classroom uses solar power and pedal power, as banks of bicycles can be used to fire-up laptops, games and juice blenders. Ritz was the first teacher to use tower garden growing systems in a classroom setting, and today there are more than 6,000 schools in America using them in educational environments. Every 24 days, the classroom produces 400 heads of leafy greens, which are donated to nourish the community's more needy and vulnerable members, as well as feed pupils.
Ritz's classroom has been visited by representatives from more than 60 countries, including the UAE, and the American has met a diverse group of luminaries that include the Pope and former US president Bill Clinton.
“I’m the most frugal guy you will ever meet – bordering on cheap – so it’s really about resilience and resourcing, which resonates with children and schools. We’re a very disruptive force, doing so much with so little. People think we are a very well-funded organisation, yet we are not a multimillion-dollar organisation, and from a staff perspective, I’m an army of one. Here, there are 785 children who are really running the show; they do all the work and I get all the credit. It’s a great pupil-teacher system,” Ritz says with a smile.
And those bulbs? As a young teacher, he found himself at a Bronx school in front of an under-resourced science class that included ex-offenders and 17- and 18 year-olds with a grade two reading level. One day Ritz received a donation of what he thought were onions from the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation, and he stashed them behind a radiator to prevent them from being used as classroom projectiles.
Fast forward six weeks, and a classroom fight is brewing. As tensions escalate and a pupil reaches under the radiator searching for some kind of weapon, a cascade of yellow daffodils is released – not onions, but flowers, brought to abundant show-stopping life by warm radiator steam. Ritz identified this as a "teachable moment" and a distraction from the brewing conflict, which ultimately led to a green graffiti movement and a first wave of "green teens" planting 25,000 bulbs across the city.
However, it was Ritz’s recognition that substandard nutrition and obesity were an increasing societal issue that led him to move from growing ornamentals to food. In 2016, the Knowledge and Human Development Authority of the government of Dubai invited the American teacher to the UAE for its What Works educational event, which provides a platform for new skills, innovation and creativity.
A standing ovation followed his 25-minute presentation, which featured 400 slides (yes, he's fast). He also visited more than 15 local schools in the space of three days. "Stephen Ritz's gift to Dubai has been his passion, his humility and his belief that when we nurture our roots, beautiful blossoms will grow," says Dr Abdulla Al Karam, director general of Knowledge and Human Development Authority, government of Dubai, in the foreword of Ritz's book.
Presenting the challenges of soil and climate in this part of the world as an opportunity for learning and discovery, the American teacher notes that with the planter's patch at Gems Modern school or the container gardens at Apple International, he saw that "these young people have figured it out and they've become solutionaries, and that's awesome. Every crisis becomes an opportunity for learning and innovation… and sometimes one good leap will get you over the finish line, and if not, you just get up and try again," Ritz says.
He is delighted that schools are turning areas of landscaping over to more functional food producing and water-conserving schemes. "Less lawns and more food; it's amazing," he adds.
Future plans for Ritz in the Emirates include further educational collaborations with Esol Education at Sustainable City where, he notes, temperatures are notably cooler than elsewhere in Dubai – a reflection of the cooling effect that planting has. “When you see all those butterflies, it’s inspiring. They are taking the desert and literally turning it into an oasis.”
The school kitchen, which is a feature of the South Bronx classroom prototype and was put together for just $5,000, is being replicated for use in the village square at Sustainable City, changing the way children eat, live, learn and cook, using solar power to interact with the world in a new, positive way.
"In the age of globalisation, automisation and climate change, teaching is becoming outsourced and in a lot of ways, my goal is to spark empathy and create a culture of compassion, a human ecology and a planetary ecology… there's Google for research and YouTube for skills, but for peace, love and good modelling behaviour, there's a teacher."