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Rooting Readers in the Literary Garden

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Originally appears in the Fall 2017 issue

After seventeen years of kicking off a new school year in just the right dress with a variety of heels that promised “comfort and flex,” this past September I rolled out of bed, threw on a pair of shorts, a literary-themed t-shirt, and a pair of sneakers. There would be no syllabi or seating charts today. Instead, I would begin my classes in the late summer sunshine of my Literary Garden.

The Literary Garden, composed of plants representing over forty American authors, stands as a testament in the center of the West Bloomfield High School courtyard, that reading is important, that place does matter, that fresh air and sunshine can improve mood and attitudes about learning, and that working in a garden can build a community out of a group of strangers. It is a one-of-a-kind garden where students can touch, photograph, and sketch the same lilac that prompted Nathaniel Hawthorne to write “Buds and Bird-Voices,” where they can eagerly await the first tulips of spring that represent works by Sylvia Plath and John Green, and where they can break off a sprig of rosemary that Nikki Giovanni herself asked us to plant when one of my students contacted her last spring.

The Garden is rooted in a deep love for literature and for nature; the first was possible to transmit to my students in my classroom; the other was stifled by it.
For the last eighteen years, I have taught in a classroom with four white walls and no windows. Throughout those eighteen years, I have watched kids squirm in their rigid, ill-fitting seats, falling asleep, surreptitiously eating, asking for bathroom pass after bathroom pass, anything to get up and get moving. They could not sit still for 90 minutes at a stretch. I, too, have watched the clock militantly like Nurse Ratched, wondering how to keep them engaged and on task.

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Jennifer McQuillan is a veteran high school English teacher, former journalist, and budding literary gardener who has a lot to learn about garden pests. She is incredibly grateful to Dr, Melissa Talhelm for her research on the Garden and for helping to procure many of the plants that reside there. You can follow the Literary Garden at www.literarygarden.org.

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