Monday, May 11, 2015

Walden at West Bloomfield...the idea

“Walden at West Bloomfield High School”
The Idea:
The courtyard in the center of West Bloomfield High School has been sadly neglected over the years. Overgrown with weeds, featuring uncomfortable tables and benches, the courtyard is in desperate need of some care and attention. We would like to propose the creation of an American literary garden that would feature plants, trees, flowers, and possibly vegetables culled from the gardens of famous American authors and their works. It is possible that with some time and research that we could actually procure some of the seeds or plants from the gardens of these authors that still exist.
American authors have long been closely tied to their horticulture. Bronson Alcott, father of Louisa May Alcott (Little Women) and a Transcendentalist and education reformer in his own right, believed apples were the “perfect fruit” and even named one of his homes the “Orchard House” (“Learn About the Alcotts and Orchard House”). Zora Neale Hurston features a pear tree as a prominent symbol in her most endearing work, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Holland Cotter of The New York Times notes that “Emily Dickinson once called herself a ‘a Lunatic on Bulbs,’ referring to her passion for daffodils, hyacinth and other spring perennials, which she raised indoors in winter in her family home in Amherst, Mass.” It is an exciting prospect indeed to imagine a courtyard featuring the beloved flora of our most inspiring American authors – a place to breathe in fresh air, to learn a little literary history, and to relax among the blooming flowers, trees, and vegetables – and perhaps maybe even read a book?
Eventually, we envision plaques with information tying the plants to their literary counterparts as well as upgraded benches and seating areas that would invite students, as Walt Whitman himself notes, to “loafe and invite my soul, / I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass” (“Song of Myself” 4-5). We would also like to bring in the Art Department to create sculptures, busts, and other artistic creations of the authors and books to add to the aesthetic experience of the garden as well as to involve another discipline in the project.  

Desperately Needed!

Day in and day out, students spend an unhealthy amount of time in uncomfortable desks, surrounded by white walls, fluorescent lights glaring down at them. It is no wonder that students are turned off by the typical classroom experience. They need to get out in nature – nay, they need to be a part of creating a space for that nature – to not only more fully appreciate the literary works we are reading, but to simply appreciate being alive! Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester notes the importance of spending time in nature to our health, well-being, and vitality:

What is novel about this research, write the authors, is that it carefully tests whether this increased vitality associated with the outdoors is simply the feel-good spillover from physical activity and people-mixing often present in these situations. To tease out the effects of nature alone, the authors conducted five separate experiments, involving 537 college students in actual and imagined contexts. In one experiment, participants were led on a 15-minute walk through indoor hallways or along a tree-lined river path. In another, the undergraduates viewed photographic scenes of buildings or landscapes. A third experiment required students to imagine themselves in a variety of situations both active and sedentary, inside and out, and with and without others.

Two final experiments tracked participants' moods and energy levels throughout the day using diary entries. Over either four days or two weeks, students recorded their exercise, social interactions, time spent outside, and exposure to natural environments, including plants and windows.

Across all methodologies, individuals consistently felt more energetic when they spent time in natural settings or imagined themselves in such situations. The findings were particularly robust, notes Ryan; being outside in nature for just 20 minutes in a day was enough to significantly boost vitality levels. Interestingly, in the last study, the presence of nature had an independent energizing effect above that of being outdoors. In other words, conclude the authors, being outdoors was vitalizing in large part because of the presence of nature.

The path around Walden Pond

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also notes a host of benefits for students who get out into nature:

• Students who spend more time outdoors in natural areas are more motivated and enthusiastic about learning.  Their academic achievement is also higher across multiple subject areas.
• Having a natural view from a classroom makes a difference - it positively impacts both student academic achievement and behavior.
• Students’ classroom behavior is better when they have recess.
Of course, some your students’ outdoor time needs to occur when they are with their families and friends – those are the opportune times for free, unstructured play in natural areas.  But, you and your school can also help connect them with nature by providing more outdoor education opportunities, making sure that they continue to have outdoor recess, and even “greening” the school grounds with naturalized areas [emphasis mine].

This project was inspired in part by the Health and Wellness program spearheaded by the WBHS administration. This year, our administration has committed to finding ways to increase unity among staff members and to find a variety of ways to helps us manage the stress of our jobs. Why shouldn’t the students have the same opportunity? Once this garden is created, it will be open to the entire student, staff, and faculty of West Bloomfield High School to enjoy at their leisure.

Jennifer McQuillan has been teaching English at West Bloomfield High School since 1999 - passionately, enthusiastically, and often in costume! She has taught everything from 9th grade English to Advanced Placement English Literature and Composition, so she is well-versed in the department curriculum. She has also chaired or co-chaired the department in some form or fashion since 2008. Her favorite books are largely culled from American literature - The Great GatsbyThe Catcher in the Rye, One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, and To Kill a Mockingbird - just to name a few. She is a former journalist for WJBK-TV and WWJ-AM, and she was an adjunct professor in English for Oakland Community College from 2008-2012. She is a published author of several academic articles and was a nominee for Oakland County High School High School Teacher of the Year in 2013.

Josh Barclay is a twenty-three year veteran of teaching both high school and university physics. He has taught a wide range of physics courses including calculus-based mechanics and electricity & magnetism labs at Eastern Michigan University, a conceptual physics course for high school juniors which he created for West Bloomfield High School, and even a physics course geared for elementary school teachers at EMU. He employs a multi-sensory approach which has been shown by research to be much more effective than the typical lecture that many students receive in school. He is also the sponsor of the Earth Club and the force behind the West Bloomfield Initiative for Renewable Energy.
Long-term Effects:


The effectiveness of this kind of work cannot be measured by traditional metrics for some time. This is a long-term project that that will take time – years, even - to develop. We will need to create the space first and then see how teachers incorporate the literary garden into their lesson plans and perhaps even their prep periods! Having a quiet place to meditate, to sit with nature, to escape the confines of our mostly windowless building has the potential to increase the happiness and well-being for students, faculty, and staff alike. Only after the garden is established can we hope to tie its existence to student achievement.

Works Cited

Cotter, Holland. “The Poet as Gardener and Tiger Lily.” The New

York Times.  29 April 2010. Web. 7 October 2014.

“Learn About the Alcotts and Orchard House.” Louisa May Alcott’s

Orchard House. 1997-2014. Web. 7 October 2014.

“Let’s Go Outside!” U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. 16

September 2014. Web. 7 October 2014.

“Spending Time in Nature Makes People Feel More Alive, Study Shows.” The University of Rochester. 3 June 2010. Web. 8

October 2014.

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself.” The Poetry

Foundation. 2014. Web. 7 October 2014.

1 comment:

  1. What a wonderful project, Jennifer! Students will gain greater access to the writers' worlds as well as be inspired to focus their attention on the natural world. Such outdoor experiences are an absolutely necessary complement to classroom work. I'm so heartened by your initiative. Best wishes, John Elder