Garden connects school students with literary classics

WestBloomfield Literary GardenEvery garden has a story, but the West Bloomfield High School Literary Garden, just outside of Detroit, Mich., has dozens.

There are the stories of how of individual plants came to reside in a well-worked patch of dirt in what was once a neglected high school courtyard.

The bittersweet vine was grown from seeds sent to the school from Red Cloud, Neb., by the Willa Cather Foundation. The lyreleaf sage was gathered with permission of writer Alice Walker from her family’s gravesite in Eatonton, Ga.
There are the stories penned by literary giants that the plants are meant to remind visitors of, and to provoke thoughts about.

White daisiesSylvia_Plath_Tulips represent Daisy in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” Red Tulips honor Slyvia Plath and her poem, “Tulips.”

The garden’s bigger story, though, is one of a veteran high school English teacher looking for one more way to get students to genuinely connect with the works she teaches in her classes.

“The more senses we engage, the more students remember, and retain that information in different ways,” said Jennifer McQuillan, who has taught at West Bloomfield High School since 1999.

Bringing literature to life

The literary garden is a progression of McQuillan’s efforts to bring books to life for her students. In the classroom, she regularly dresses up as the authors she teaches. Her classes go all-out for a Gatsby party after they finish studying Fitzgerald’s novel.

“I have done everything to get the kids engaged, and it gets harder and harder with the proliferation of electronic devices,” she said.

For years, McQuillan has taken her kids outside for nature walks during their study of Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden.”

That experience of seeing students come alive outside, combined with her own experience visiting the home sites of American authors as a tourist, and the discovery of a neglected courtyard on her school’s grounds, all led to an idea.

“I thought, what if we could get someone to donate seeds or a plant cutting from some of these historic places” associated with authors, McQuillan said. “I started to ask.”

Cultivating a collection

When the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library in Indianapolis wrote back to say they loved the idea so much they wanted to donate money to sponsor it, McQuillan was floored.

Founder and CEO Julia Whitehead then told McQuillan she thought she could get her access to some of the actual hydrangea bushes that line the outside of the guest cottage on Vonnegut’s property in Cape Cod, MassWe.

West Bloomfield HydrangeaEdie Vonnegut, the late writer’s daughter, permitted McQuillan to come to the home last September to dig up some of the plants for the literary garden. McQuillan enlisted the help of a friend for the nerve-wracking job of driving these storied plants from Massachusetts back to Michigan.

Once they were planted in October, McQuillan was on constant watch, hoping they’d survive in their new home.

“I would go out there and look at those hydrangeas all the time,” she said. “I would practically lay on the ground and put my finger into the dirt.”

A master gardener friend counseled patience, and when spring came, the plants leafed out and eased McQuillan’s worries. A drama class at the school constructed a replica of the green door on Vonnegut’s guest cottage, which appears in a photo of him sitting among the hydgrangeas, to serve as the focal point of the garden.

A former student who now lives in the United Kingdom special-ordered a garden gnome that perfectly matches the one in the photo, making the garden a unique combination of literary scholarship and student contributions.

Students take ownership

Students have played a major role in the garden from the beginning. The courtyard where it is located is too small for trucks or mechanical equipment to reach to deposit materials, so to get started, students brought in 19 yards of dirt and 4 yards of pea gravel by wheelbarrow.

Local master gardeners helped advise McQuillan on the project, and the first plantings were made last fall.

That means that this year’s crop of students will be the first to start the school year with an established literary garden on campus.

McQuillan has been pleased with the level of engagement the garden has fostered among students as it has gone from a bare circle of dirt to a place full of life.

“When I think it changed for them was when we studied the Transcendentalists,” she said.

A lilac bush in the literary garden was grown from a cutting taken from The Old Manse, the home where Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote the first draft of his essay, “Nature,” and where Nathaniel Hawthorne later lived and wrote.

The lilac bush is referenced directly in Hawthorne’s essay, “Buds and Bird Voices,” and McQuillan found this proved a powerful artifact for students studying the author.

“In their note-taking, you could see their thought shifting. It wasn’t just a random plant, it was, ‘I’m looking at something that Hawthorne looked at,” she said. “You could see they had a connection to Hawthorne that most other people don’t have.”

Student interest took off from here. During an April unit on American poets, McQuillan challenged her students—not for extra credit or a better grade, but just for fun—to contact the poet or a foundation for the poet they had studied, and ask if they could contribute anything to the literary garden.

Even after that school year has ended, students continue to pursue those requests, which have yielded material from several poets for the garden.

West Bloomfield Pear TreeMcQuillan documents the literary garden on Plants Map.

West Bloomfield High School Literary Garden by Jennifer McQuillan on Plants Map

Each plant’s profile includes lines from works that relate to the plant, and links or stories from the places where the plant came from, to provide context for the plant within the garden.

She has installed Plants Map’s interactive plant signs and tags in the garden, so that students can browse on their own with their smartphones and discover authors that interest them.

The project not only connects tech-laden students with the natural world, but it also humanizes authors that many high school students find intimidating.

“The realize they went walking, they had homes, they had families, they liked to cook. It just humanizes them in a way they had never thought about before,” McQuillan said. “They are more willing to give these authors a chance. They don’t seem nearly as inaccessible.”

To learn more, visit West Bloomfield Literary Garden on Plants Map.