A Zen approach to education

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Amanda Cregan, The Intelligencer: As students load up their backpacks and prepare for another busy school year, a handful of teens are looking forward to a stress-free semester.

At Tinicum Art & Science [Ottsville, PA], high school students are learning to focus their minds, erase life’s anxieties and tap into their creativity before classroom instruction can begin.

All classes and activities at the private, religious school are centered around the dojo, a room for meditation and martial arts that contains a shrine to Buddha.

Students begin each school day in silence as they sit in quiet reflection in the dojo, preparing themselves for …

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a day of rigorous academics.“The main purpose of the school is academics. But so much gets in the way of studying: sour relationships, fear, bad habits, confusing home life, weak skill set, and so on. We try to create the conditions that allow students to take risks and move beyond all that,” said principal Peter Ryan.

Throughout their weekly schedule, students are called to spend time in meditation, group therapy, art, chores and exercise, such as yoga and Shim Gum Do martial arts.

Meditation is an essential key; teachers and staff aim to improve the mind, body and soul of each student, said Ryan.

“Meditation develops self-awareness, first through a general quieting of the chatter within oneself, and then the capacity to observe the self while alone, and then while with others. This creates a stable space inside the self. Over time, with instruction, students learn to bring this stability to other parts of the school, even to their lives at home and with peers,” he said.

Julia Boddy, 18, of Bridgeton, graduated from Tinicum Art & Science in June.

As a freshman at Palisades High School, Boddy struggled. She had trouble sleeping at night, struggled to pay attention in class, and was even sensitive to the florescent lighting. When she transferred to the private school in 10th grade, everything changed.

“It was everything I wanted,” said Boddy, “From meditation to better eating habits to getting involved in what I was learning, it kind of made me a better all-around person.”

She admits the culture at Tinicum Art & Science isn’t for everyone, but meditation helped change her from the inside out.

“Studying meditation every day really helped me get control over myself, and it’s made me more confident in every situation,” said Boddy, who will major in literary studies at The New School in New York City this fall.

Josh and Cole Mertz, both 17, struggled with poor grades, bullying and depression before finding their way to Tinicum Art & Science. The twins’ parents commute nearly three hours a day, from Carbon County, because their sons have found peace and success at the school.

For Cole, it’s a relief to not have to deal with the sometimes brutal social scene at public high schools. He describes his current fellow students as loving and compassionate.

“In public high school, everyone wants to be better than the other one. But here, we are all equal. The kids are more understanding of each other,” he said.

The school serves about 30 students.

There are seven teachers at Tinicum Art & Science, and students call their teachers by their first name. Classes typically have fewer than 10 students. Because of the small class size, staff members can focus a lot of time and effort on each student, said Ryan. Each student’s development and needs are continually evaluated, and teachers adjust accordingly, he said.

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