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by Suzie Boss
National Faculty

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Topic tags: significant content, PBL World, how to do PBL


June 17, 2013
Stephen Ritz Kicks off PBL World

by Suzie Boss
National Faculty

PBL World got off to a fast start this morning with a high-energy keynote from Stephen Ritz, passionate educator and founder of Green Bronx Machine.

Since 2006, he has been transforming classrooms, lives, and neighborhoods in the Bronx—and beyond—by using Project Based Learning to introduce students to urban farming. By turning classroom walls into vertical farms, he sets the stage for real-world PBL that teaches students to find and grow opportunities everywhere.


Tweets were flying this morning as PBL World attendees shared Ritz’s inspirational, can-do message. Read the highlights on Storify. Follow the conversation all week with the hashtag #pblworld.

After the keynote, Ritz took time to offer a few more insights about how to make the most of PBL. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

Tell us more about how growing vegetables grows citizens and communities.

You start by finding a niche where kids are interested. Then let them plant, nurture, harvest, propagate. That’s what it’s all about. Planting is symbolic of each project. This kind of learning is as hands-on and locally grown as you can get. It’s organic Project Based Learning—because it’s student-generated, student grown. Most importantly, kids are engaged.

What does success look like?

Success looks like so many things. It’s going from 40% attendance to 93%. It’s having cohorts where kids who graduate are either in college or working living-wage jobs. And there’s more. For me, I’ve lost 120 pounds since we started doing this. My kids, collectively, have lost 1,000 pounds. We’re changing mindsets and health outcomes. We’re transforming neighborhoods by turning abandoned, forlorn places into productive growing spaces. This is the new green machine.

How about academic success?

Everything I do via farming, I connect to the Regents (New York State high school exams). Once you start getting kids to pass the Regents, that’s empowerment for kids. They don’t get into this to pass the test. They do it because it’s fun and they’re making money. But guess what? It translates to academic success.

It’s so easy for me to integrate academics. I don’t have a science lab, but with a vertical wall, we’re doing controlled experiments. We’re making predictions. We’re doing analysis, designing, measuring, graphing. I look at the high-stakes tests and deconstruct. I figure out how to use this tool—farming—to reinforce the learning they need to perform on the tests. It’s about much more than the tests. They’re learning what they need to attack problems and overcome challenges. I don’t expect them to farmers, but I do expect them to read, write, follow protocols, and incorporate technical thinking beyond filling in the bubble.

How do your projects connect kids with their community?

I want the walls of my classroom to be as far out into the community as possible. And I want the community involved with my classroom. So it’s about mentoring, intergenerational programming, getting Grandma involved. Our kids may travel the world on their devices but they never get outside the two-block area of home. So I want to move them into spheres of success where they meet role models and aspire to things they never imagined. It’s all about collaboration and coalitions.

To learn more about Ritz and Green Bronx Machine, watch his TEDx talk, “A Teacher Growing Green in the South Bronx.”

Stay tuned for more updates from PBL World. The fun is just beginning!


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