Building Best Practices From Cedar and Oak

I like to think of the wood as kind of like my life; they are both hard, but I am trying to shape them into something. – Enrique Diaz, Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory Program graduate

Our work with vulnerable youth at Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory (PWBF) has never been just about building boats, crafting sails or having a positive impact on our watershed environment. We have always been committed to shaping lives. That is why Enrique’s quote is meaningful to us. As Enrique came to learn about wood and acclimate to the tools needed to transform it into something functional and meaningful, he came also to understand that he could build his own foundation and that he had the capacity to shape the direction of his life. Our job is to provide the tools and the supportive adult relationships needed to enable youth to thrive not just as apprentices, but also in their lives.

Social and emotional learning (SEL) was not the name we first attached to this philosophical approach. In fact, the grounding of our work in this type of approach was instinctual first rather than guided by any research perspective that we consciously sought to adopt. Our founder believed that experiential learning would provide tools youth needed, at multiple levels. He also firmly believed that individual agency would take root when youth were inspired to approach and meet the demands of challenging work, in a medium where outputs clearly matched inputs, and the results had meaning, functionality and beauty.

Over time however, we also came to understand that instincts alone are not enough – that we had to become intentional in our work and that those intentions needed to be grounded in research and best practices. As a father, I’ve come to believe that the mistakes parents make are almost always made with the best intentions. I discovered the same as an organizational leader. I have always had the best of intentions with respect to the youth we serve. But those intensions have sometimes failed me as well as them.

The grounding of our work in a research perspective first occurred in a robust way when PWBF began to integrate the work of Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg and his Reaching Teens curriculum into the fabric of our program. We were introduced to the strength-based model, and developed a new set of approaches that were founded in connection and the recognition that youth are the experts in their own lives. The practices that now anchor our program, and that are featured within the Field Guide, are informed by Dr. Ginsburg’s work, our 18-month collaboration with our SEL partners, the research of the Forum for Youth Investment and the Weikart Center for Youth Program Quality, and a constant effort to learn more and examine the truths we believe.

The collaborative work with the 7 other groups within the Susan Crown Exchange’s (SCE) 2014 Social and Emotional Learning Challenge helped us establish a language that both described and informed our work. SCE is a Chicago-based foundation invested in shaping an ecosystem of anytime, anywhere learning that prepares youth to adapt and thrive in a rapidly changing and highly connected world. SCE launched its Challenge to identify and partner with organizations, like ours, who are working to equip future generations with the social and emotional skills they need to thrive.

Studies have shown that out-of-school programs that intentionally weave social and emotional learning practices into their approach have positive impacts on youth that far exceed the impact of programs with no explicit focus on SEL, and that theses ‘non-cognitive’ SEL skills are the true predictor of post-secondary success. Our 8 groups wanted to connect to the research informed practices that existed in the field, and bring our own insight and ingenuity to the conversation. Our goal in doing so was to help inform a more universal awareness of practices that nurture these life skills.

The lessons and our narratives have been coalesced by the Weikart Center into the SEL Field Guide, which not only clearly articulates the value of SEL – namely that success in life and work depends not solely on traditional training and intellectual skills but also upon mastering the particular characteristics that we’ve come to call social and emotional learning – but also outlines six domains for skill-building among youth – emotion management, empathy, teamwork, responsibility, initiative, problem solving – and provides tools and resources for fostering them.

Of course SEL ‘Curriculums’ have many different looks. My son’s small, Quaker school for example, spent ten years honing and developing a year-round curriculum that emphasizes concepts like ‘double-dip feelings’ and fosters common language around social-emotional interactions, like “is your problem a pebble a rock or a boulder”? Their sixty+ staff members have been trained. They not only share a vernacular and can foster SEL in the moment, but they also have a formal and robust curriculum where SEL is the content of the lesson itself.

In contrast our program chooses not provide directed lessons on SEL as an adjunct to what we already do. There is value to that approach, but not in our setting. Someone said to me not long ago, that they were excited to hear how we had integrated SEL into boatbuilding. I struggled with how to respond because I wanted to make clear that, at PWBF, we aren’t separating SEL from our craftwork. We are not interrupting our apprenticeship activities to implement something extra or abstract. Rather we are developing SEL skills among our youth through intentionality on the part of our staff interventions and interactions.

This intentionality is not instinctive, but practiced. We have come a long way from the instincts that shaped our founding in the process. The field of out-of-school time, or extended learning, has fantastic potential to advance ideas and innovate because we have the flexibility to iterate. In contrast to our school-based partners, we are not beholden to a Common Core, or the bureaucracies of State and regionally managed and funded institutions. The second edge to the proverbial sword however is that, outside of criminal clearances, there are few accepted standard and shared practices for those working in this field. The paths I traveled could have more directly led to the results I sought, had I knowledge of, and access to resources earlier. We are thrilled to have been a part of this cohort, and hope that Field Guide can help advance our collective conversation about the field of positive youth development.

Check out the Field Guide at

PWBF Grads Adventures in Coastal Maine


Andy at Wooden Boat School, August 2015The Wooden Boat School in Brooklin, ME, August 2015

I must say that I had not anticipated that coastal Maine would have such a draw for our students; it seems a world apart from North Philadelphia. Nonetheless, here we are, two weeks in to the academic year and Wooden Boat Factory graduates are making their presence felt in Maine’s costal communities. As reported earlier, Wooden Boat Factory graduate Kimo Merced is living in Kennebunkport Maine, studying boatbuilding at the Landing School. And what we are seeing is that Kimo is not alone in his adventuring sprit. Thanks to a visit form Landing School CEO Richard Schuhmann, three students have already stated intent to apply after graduation.

Meanwhile Andy, our Program Assistant – and a 2013-program graduate, spent his summer vacation studying boatbuilding at the Wooden Boat School in Brooklin Maine. It’s his second year venturing alone to Maine’s rugged coast. Andy and Kimo talk about how different it is, how peaceful, inspiring. We agree.

Andy studied this summer with Wooden Boat School instructor Geoff Burke, building the Rushton ‘Model 109’ Canoe.

Geoff took students back in time to the late 19th Century when acclaimed craftsman John Henry Rushton was pioneering lightweight canoe design.  Using Rushton’s personal workshop manual as inspiration, students built his “double-ended pleasure boat,” pictured below.

Check out those laps!Beautiful. That's a lot of frames.


Andy and his fellow apprentices were encouraged to lean and implement many of the skills that Rushton would have used himself, in an age before power tools and equipment were available. Students were challenged to hone in on their hand tool skills.  “We used a chisel for everything,” Andy said.  For instance, in the PWBF shop Andy would use an electric plane to scarf cedar planks, or a hand plane to work lap joints.  For this project, he was encourage to experiment with a slick (a larger size hand chisel).  Needless to say, Andy returned with a finer skillset and an appreciation for how things used to be done.  We’re excited to see his upcoming handiwork as he takes on the role of lead carpenter and educator for our Factory One Design boat.

A big thank you to The Wooden Boat School and Gene Shaw for their generous donations that made this experience possible.  And a special thanks to Geoff Burke for his mentorship.

Stay tuned to see if Andy institutes a “no electric tools” challenge day with the new cohort of students starting the program in October!

The Student Blog: Journey to Community Row:

This August we will be hosting Community Row days from Pleasant Hill Park. This annual event has become a way for us to engage the community and have them connect with the Delaware River. This summer we (the Riverguides) participated in a six-week “Work Ready” program through the Philadelphia Youth Network. In preparation for these Community Row Days, we have been learning basic row commands in addition to field trips to Lardners Point Park, nature walks with the Tookany-Tacony-Frankford Watershed Partnership, and trips to the Fairmount Waterworks water treatment plant. Each trip has provided us with an opportunity to better understand how the relationships in the Delaware River ecosystem. During the community row days we hope to share this information with the public in hopes of educating and brining awareness to the issues that plague the Delaware River, which is a major source of drinking water for the Philadelphia area.