Over the last academic year, English teacher Jennifer McQuillan has created a tangible connection to literature for her students—the Literary Garden. This unique project, the first of its kind in a secondary school setting, repurposes neglected courtyard space for a garden featuring plants collected from the homesteads, museums, and gravesites of American authors, along with those plants that feature prominently in their narratives. The garden showcases the plants connected to over 30 authors, including several plants from The Old Manse, the home of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson; lyre leaf sage and periwinkle from Alice Walker’s family gravesite in Georgia; bearded white irises from Flannery O’Connor’s Andalusia Farm; and a pear tree bringing to life the central symbol in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Even though the Literary Garden’s official opening is occurring just this June and the project is in its nascent stages, it has already mobilized an entire school community around the promotion of literacy. Covered in numerous local media outlets (notably the Detroit Free Press, Sunday November 1, 2015, http://www.freep.com/story/life/family/kristen-jordan-shamus/2015/10/31/west-bloomfield-high-literary-garden/74750992/) and even nationally on NPR’s Morning Edition (August 26, 2015, http://www.npr.org/2015/08/26/434821478/authors-garden-clippings-grow-students-love-of-literature), the Literary Garden has inspired droves of former and current students, parents, and other community members, such as local writers and master gardeners, to volunteer their time and expertise to creating a space to get students outside in a natural environment that represents the kinds of American landscapes that inspired these writers in the first place. Pairing the garden with the study of American literature, with a special emphasis on landscape as a theme that informs what and how writers write, Ms. McQuillan has reshaped her approach to teaching. The course theme of landscape has motivated her to consider the potential of outdoor spaces for teaching literature, so that students can experientially understand the natural world that inspires writers and communicates powerful, symbolic meanings.
The project has also inspired interdisciplinary collaborations between science teachers, whose students are creating compost bins and testing soil, and drama and art teachers, whose student work embellishes the garden. Additionally, the West Bloomfield Township Public Library has provided the iCenter with a deposit collection of books, including over 40 titles, written by the authors represented in the Literary Garden, from Edgar Allan Poe to Sylvia Plath to Marge Piercy.