Blog Post

Looking Out for Each Other

By Emma Bergman, LSW from Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory

The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory develops teamwork through a year-long process of collective boat building and sailing.

It was so loud that I could feel the vibration from the wood shop downstairs through my shoes on the counseling office floor. The rhythmic pounding, clanging, and occasional screams of joy, punctuated the tedium of paperwork. As the social worker at the Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory, I have grown to find comfort in the constant beat, tapping out the sound of youth engaged in productive work. Was it the noise of wooden mallet on chisel, necessary for carving out a groove in a piece of dense white oak, I wondered. Or was it the heavy plastic mallet swung wildly by teen arms to force a grommet through sail cloth?

It was the day that the students would start “cutting keel rabbet.” A rabbet is a woodworking term that can be defined as “a channel, groove, or recess cut out of the edge or face of a surface; especially: one intended to receive another member (as a panel).” The keel rabbet’s importance in the boat building process is paramount: it is the groove on which the first wooden planks will be lain, the backbone of the entire craft. The task itself is equally important to our work in our afterschool program: as they build, our students are testing their problem solving skills, empathy for peers and ultimately their “ability to form a cohesive, high functioning group that works together effectively toward shared goals” (SEL Field Guide p. 68).

In other words, as we call it more commonly: their teamwork skills. It’s a great metaphor: they are balancing the need for both force and precision, all while working as part of a team.

Emma Bergman on a boat

Emma Bergman, LSW holds a Masters in Social Work and contributes her passion for positive youth development, creative group empowerment, and community engagement to PWBF. The Philadelphia Wooden Boat Factory engages city youth ages 14-21 through hands-on, experiential programming inspired by the heritage of the sea. The program offers project-based learning clubs for students to develop motivation, coping skills, agency, self-awareness and confidence.

We work with students age 14 to 21, teaching boat-building and sailing skills alongside life skills. As one of our experienced students eloquently articulated, “It is easy to have collaboration, where everyone is working together, but teamwork is something different. Teamwork is in the subconscious. It is a feeling that we are all looking out for one another.”

In the process of cutting keel rabbet there are concrete goals, and yet when everyone is chiseling the keel simultaneously, it trembles so vigorously that no one can work. And so another challenge arises, in which the students most reconcile each of their individual processes to achieve the shared goals. As one boatbuilding apprentice reflected, “We all want the common goal. We just want a boat that can float in water”—and that takes teamwork. (SEL Field Guide , p. 72).

Now that rabbet is cut, my shoes are no longer vibrating, and the lessons of teamwork and collaboration linger on. The students’ feelings of authentic contribution, competence, the ultimately confidence they derived - not just from their own contribution to the project but from their contribution to the team - will inform their teamwork skills, improve their self-esteem, and inspire them to follow their dreams in boatbuilding and beyond. (For more, see Fostering Resilience’s 7c’s, Reaching Teens)


As a companion to the Preparing Youth to Thrive guide, we are hosting Learning in Action, a series of informal video chats among youth and program staff to delve deeply into each area of SEL learning.

Learn more about the video chats and how to participate in upcoming chats here.

Emma and Josh, a student from Philadelphia, participated in the first video chat on April 20: Teamwork Video Chat.

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