For two months, twelve special education students aged 7 to 9 spent the better part of each afternoon constructing an 8' by 8' traditional Japanese tea house from wood, syn skin (industrial rice paper), and bamboo. They worked with their teacher, Lou Tirado, at the Museum School in Yonkers (New York PS 25).
The Tea House Project was an authentic hands-on activity that introduced students to an important facet of Japanese culture. Students build the tea house as a temporary structure, in the tradition of the humble huts of Japan's wandering monks. Sculptor David Weinrib designed the structure in such a way that it could be quickly dismantled and stored. The tea house was first constructed indoors and then rebuilt under the open sky.
At the time, the Museum School's year-long theme revolved around the topic of food. The Japanese tea house quietly became a centerpiece of student learning. Each day, students worked together to gather background knowledge about Japan and to construct the tea house. Learning to measure with precision and to respect the materials at hand, the students who built the tea house were also exposed to the values that lie at the heart of the Way of Tea--orderliness, purity, tranquility, and respect.
During their unit of study, the students read Japanese folk tales that illustrated traditional Japanese values, learned Japanese songs, wrote and read haiku, and viewed slide shows that helped them to make distinctions between the Japan of the past and contemporary Japan.
The project culminated in a day of international friendship during which students from the Japanese School of New Jersey visited PS 25. All PS 25 third graders attended International Friendship Day, at which Mr. Tirado's special education students acted as hosts and hostesses. Despite their lack of a common language, the children from the different schools greeted each other with Japanese bows and American handshakes. Together, they learned an original greeting song, which they acted out enthusiastically as I accompanied on guitar.
As part of the day's activities, all children learned the rules of the Way of Tea, removed their shoes, solemnly entered the tea house in small groups, and participated in a traditional ceremony hosted by tea master Yasuko Hara and myself. An especially meaningful part of the day was the joyful interaction experienced by the students, teachers, parent volunteers, and invited dignitaries. This was a time for Mr. Tirado's students to celebrate their two months of preparation for the ceremony, and for all to celebrate new friendships.
About the Author
Lisa Garrison, a Keizai Koho Center Fellow in 1991 and 1997, conceived the Children's Tea House Project as a staff developer at Bank Street College of Education. She is an educator and artist whose work combines the environment, community building, and ritual as tools for teaching peace.
Building a Japanese Tea House
Where to get materials for building a Japanese Tea House with children:
> Bamboo for roof and ìtatami matsî for floor:
Bamboo and Rattan Works
470 Oberlin Ave. S
Lakewood, NJ 08701
> Industrial rice paper (syn skin) for walls:
345 Canal Street
New York, NY 10003
The Way of Tea
>What is the purpose of the tea ceremony?
Tea is a Japanese way of meeting and greeting the world.
>What utensils will we use in the tea ceremony?
In Japan, during the month of May, farmers cover the little tea leaves in their fields with straw to protect them from sunlight. Later they pick the leaves from the stalks. The leaves are ground with a mortar and pestle (usu) until they make a very fine powder. The color of matcha is very bright green.
Seven Rules for Our Tea Ceremony
1. Listen and Follow Directions. You are guests at this tea ceremony. David and I will be your hosts. As you approach the tea house, and throughout the ceremony, wait for the hosts to tell you exactly what to do and when to do it. Listen carefully and follow our instructions.
2. Enter the Tea House Carefully and Sit Still. Wear socks or slippers, but no shoes, in the tea house so that you can feel the tatami floor under your feet. By keeping the tea house clean and free of dust, we show our respect for each other and all of life. Inside the tea house, sit cross-legged or kneel during the ceremony. If you get stiff and have to move, do so quietly. You will have a chance to hold the utensils and look at them before the ceremony. During the ceremony, only the hosts will touch most of the tea utensils. Each utensil will be returned to its special place during the ceremony.
3. Be Silent and Wait Your Turn. Remain silent during the tea ceremony--so quiet you can hear your own breath or the sound of water boiling in the kettle. Everyone will get a chance to participate in drinking tea during the ceremony. Wait patiently for your turn.
4. Try the Tea. Find the courage in your heart to try the tea and the rice cake, even though the taste is different from things you usually eat.
5. Show Respect to the Host and Other Guests. We will practice our Japanese manners during the tea ceremony. After the host greets you, you may bow with respect and say good morning (Ohayoo Gozaimasu). Express your gratitude when the host serves you (Doomo Arigatoo).
6. Concentrate Your Attention. While waiting your turn, pay attention to the beauty and simplicity of the tea ceremony. Each tea ceremony is completely unique. We will never be together in quite this way again. Look at the beauty of the flower, recently bloomed. Soon those petals will fall and the moment will pass. Sense the harmony between the tea house and the tea utensils, between the hosts and the guests.
7. Enjoy the Peace, Tranquility and Harmony of the Tea Ceremony and the Tea House. Feel pride in the tea house you have built and all the work you have done. Fill your heart with the peace of sharing a bowl of tea with me.