Monday, September 28, 2015

Nature takes root in pedagogy with alum’s literary garden

Tags: alumni

Literary Garden Nature played an important role in the lives of many American writers—Thoreau's Walden Pond, Twain's Mississippi Delta, Hemingway's northern Michigan, to name just a few. That's what struck Jennifer McQuillan ('95, secondary teacher certification '99) as she prepared lesson plans for her classes at West Bloomfield (Michigan) High School.

McQuillan has been teaching English at West Bloomfield since 1999, and has chaired or co-chaired the English department for the past seven years. "I keep thinking of things to generate excitement for my classes," she says. "I want to get students to rethink the reading that they do—for example, how landscape fits in literature. You can make connections between nature and the books I teach. For example, in Huckleberry Finn, when Huck is in completely natural settings—like on the island or on the river—he is able to sustain a friendship with Jim. Once he is in the artificial construct of ‘civilization,' their friendship regresses to that of a white boy and a black slave."

And since McQuillan is as passionate about gardening as she is about teaching, she developed an idea for a project she believes is the first of its kind: a literary garden in the context of a secondary school, used to connect students to great American writers and their works.

That idea came from the convergence of several factors. One was research McQuillan read about the beneficial effects on students of exposure to the natural world. Another factor was the sorry state of landscaping in the interior courtyard of the high school. From that, the general idea was germinated for a new garden. Then, to add a pedagogical angle, "I did some research on American authors who were associated with gardens and gardening," she says. "Then we came up with a wish list of authors we wanted to have represented in the garden."

McQuillan made several inquiries about securing cuttings for the garden, and got some positive responses right away, among them from Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner (roses); the Walt Whitman Birthplace State Historic Site and Interpretive Center (lilacs); and The Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald Museum (magnolias).

Meanwhile, ground was broken on a circular garden in the high school courtyard. To prepare the space, seed money (no pun intended) was provided by the West Bloomfield Educational Foundation, and was eventually supplemented by online donations. Old sod and weeds in the garden space were removed in preparation for further work to make the space plant-friendly.

Over the summer, additional authors' estates and representatives were approached about contributing to the garden, including the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library (hydrangeas), and the [Edgar Allan] Poe Museum (ivy). "In June, I went with Melissa Talhelm of Southern Connecticut State University, who was my supervising teacher when I was earning my certificate at U-M, to the Mark Twain House in Hartford, Connecticut, to get some wisteria cuttings," McQuillan said.

"I learned that Emily Dickinson has a garden at her homestead in Amherst, Massachusetts. In July, I visited with Dr. Jane Eberwein, a professor emeritus at Oakland University [I'm a graduate of OU], who is a renowned scholar of Dickinson. She has offered to help me link Emily Dickinson's poetry to the flowers we'll have in our garden, as part of developing the curriculum." McQuillan, working with master gardener DaniAnn Connolly, also secured cuttings from a yellow rose bush that is believed to have been planted by Dickinson herself. Later in the summer, New Jersey garden designer and consultant Marta McDowell sent a daylily from Dickinson's garden.

Literary Garden There were two other significant developments regarding the garden in the latter part of the summer: the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library signed on as a literary sponsor, and the final preparation work on the physical space itself was completed. McQuillan admits the prep work was arduous, and extensive. Sod had to be removed and composted, pea gravel installed for drainage, and compost, soil and stone added to complete the preparation. "Great Lakes Landscape Design worked with us on the design, and students, and former students, did the work," McQuillan says.

Although much remains to be done, the project is moving steadily forward. "Most of the cuttings will come this fall," she said. "We'll be working with DaniAnn to figure out which plants can withstand winter, for example. And, I'll hold classes in the garden—I want to get the students thinking about the garden's potential."

Linking the garden to pedagogy, McQuillan says she will be using the theme of landscapes to provide a focus for the students' reading of the American literature they're studying. That theme also connects to the garden, the landscapes in which the authors wrote and lived, and/or the symbolic use of plants in the works. And, she adds, Melissa Talhelm will be out in September to work on research on how to incorporate the garden into literacy instruction.

McQuillan says it really is all about growth, in her students and in the garden itself. And, "It has been a journey, for sure," she says.

For an update on the literary garden, see the feature story in the Detroit Free Press.

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