Social and Emotional Learning SCE Community

Partner Blog: Building Best Practices from Cedar and Oak

This blog series features stories from SCE’s SEL Challenge partners. 

Building Best Practices from Cedar and Oak

By Brett Hart, Executive Director from Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory

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) 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.