Winter 2017

|  by Emell Derra Adolphus

Literary Garden

American literature teacher, OU alumna Jennifer McQuillan, transcends the customary classroom with a green thumb

In a figurative sense, Jennifer McQuillan, M.A. ’06, has always encouraged her students at West Bloomfield High School to get their hands dirty and learn. “You will find that I am constantly trying to find a way to reach one of their senses, if not multiple, in order to get (students) to retain the information.”

In spring 2015, McQuillan planted the first seeds of a garden in the school’s empty courtyard, with hopes to inspire her pupils to really dig in to American literature. What blossomed was a multisensory, interdisciplinary learning experience that her students can easily retain and cultivate.

“I kept thinking about how nature shows up in all of the works that I teach,” said McQuillan, who has been an English teacher at West Bloomfield High since 1999. Unable to physically visit all the places referenced in her literature courses, the garden serves as a tangible connection to the author’s words, she explained. “It humanizes these authors in a way that you’re not going to get if we were just reading about them in the classroom.”

With the help of a $500 dollar grant from the West Bloomfield Educational Foundation — “That was our seed money,” said McQuillan (pun intendedMcQuillan, her students, and a handful of volunteers began populating the garden with a variety of flora. Some plants were donated and taken directly from the authors’ homesteads, and others were planted in their honor.

“We just never knew what would be coming in next,” said McQuillan. Like a true English garden, the outdoor space contains a wild mix of references to more than 30 authors: A green door surrounded by hydrangeas nods to Kurt Vonnegut’s guest cottage at his Cape Cod home; daisies rival the beauty of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Daisy Buchanan character in “The Great Gatsby”; a pear tree stands in honor of Zora Neale Hurston's “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and more.

As word about the high school’s literary garden continues to spread, additional learning opportunities for McQuillan and her students have sprouted along the way. Last year, one of her students won a scholarship to attend the Michigan Hemingway Society Fall Conference, and McQuillan has been invited to speak on several occasions and participate in academic research about how the garden has changed her students’ retention of knowledge.

“It’s too easy I think, in this day and age, to live in a virtual world. It’s very fun for me to show them what’s right under their noses,” said McQuillan, who thanks her time at OU for opening her mind and her senses to learning in new ways.

“All of the professors that I encountered at OU in the English Department were absolutely passionate about what they were teaching,” she said. McQuillan received her M.A. in English in 2006. “I soaked that up. I soaked it right up, and then I took it back to my classroom and passed it right on.”

McQuillan recently began working with OU’s Jane Donahue Eberwein, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of English, emerita, to add some Emily Dickinson-inspired components to the literary garden. If she could plant something OU-inspired, McQuillan said it would be a cherry blossom tree to symbolize wisdom and knowledge.

“So obviously I got a lot of all of that in my time at OU,” she said, “But also, cherry blossom trees can represent friendship and hope. When I graduated in '06, I was so hopeful for my future in teaching, and looking back on it 10 years later, I can really say that OU helped me to grow in ways I did not even know at the time were possible.”

Follow Along!
Follow Jennifer McQuillan and the literary garden’s growth at West Bloomfield High School at waldenatwestbloomfield.blogspot.com.

Get Involved
Want to lend your green thumb to literary garden? Contact Jennifer McQuillan at [email protected] to find out how you can contribute to the garden’s success.