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Art of Tea Elective Connects History, Art and Science

The Upper School elective The Art of Tea is an interdisciplinary course that explores history, geography, biology, and the visual and culinary arts –– all through the lens of an everyday ritual. In this “hands-on, palette-on” class taught by US art teacher Auguste Elder, students took a deep dive into the rich culture and history of one of the world’s most popular beverages, and came away with some profound lessons along the way.

The Art of Tea originated as a special class held during the Upper School’s Spring Session, a week each year in which students explore a topic in depth outside of their regular curriculum. Offering the class as an elective this year drew students of varied interests beyond just art or history, and proved to be full of opportunities for experiential learning. 

Throughout the course, Upper Schoolers were immersed in the world of tea, from the harvest of the leaves to the ritual of a tea ceremony, and used their hands-on experiences to draw meaningful connections with various disciplines. They employed research skills to study varieties of teas from around the world and their historical significance, methods and production, as well as the science behind tea brewing. They created ceramic tea ware for their own tastings, which deepened students’ understanding of art and functionality. The class also heard from visiting tea experts, who shared more about the industry as well as the intersections between tea and cultural identity. 

Students in Art of Tea perform tea services

As a culminating project, students became tea sommeliers by curating a tea menu and conducting their own tea ceremony, during which they served multiple steeps of a tea while explaining its flavor and origins to an adult guest from the Calhoun community. The assignment challenged Upper Schoolers by requiring a great deal of research, preparation, and public speaking skills as they stepped into the spotlight and led an entire tea ceremony on their own. By learning how to both physically and metaphorically make a seat for their guests, students had to practice reading the room, cultivating relationships and making decisions on the spot –– leadership skills that can be applied to a number of real-world situations.

In fact, many students gleaned lessons from the Art of Tea that could be applied to life beyond the class. As Hil V. ‘22 reflected, “[When it comes to] steeping tea, the fact that they can change drastically depending on how long you steep them for and the environment they're in can also relate to people and how we can always change into the person we want to be. There is no person that is stuck in the place or person they are at the moment –– you can always be better and do better, you just have to give yourself time.”

Upper School students are unlikely to ever look at a cup of tea in the same way again, nor easily forget this impactful learning experience.