Youth Leadership Series: Courageous Sailing Builds Leaders at Sea, on Land, and in the Classroom

A10088862866_b697b3cf76_zt the Summer Learning Summit on March 22, 2016, site directors from the Boston Summer Learning Community learned about the Youth Leadership Policy and Practice Brief and committed to expanding the opportunities they offer for youth leadership within their respective programs. Offering age-appropriate leadership roles and opportunities to youth ranging from fourth to twelfth grades, Courageous Sailing is among those that have pledged to increase opportunities for youth leadership and autonomy this summer.

“Courageous’ official mission is to ‘transform lives through sailing programs that inspire learning, personal growth, and leadership,’ and we believe that youth leadership should be an integral goal of any organization that works with kids,” Education Director Jen Bodde said.

At this SLP site, fourth and fifth graders in the Swim, Sail, Science program and high school Instructors in Training (IITs) benefit from the inherent leadership that comes with sailing a boat. Many on-board positions, such as skipper, navigator, mainsheet operator, and traffic director, are essential to safe sailing, and are partitioned out to students. Staff members embolden students to take on these roles, but also give them the freedom to explore and invent other influential positions.

“If kids want to take charge of a particular area, we want them to feel empowered to do so,” Bodde said. “ In addition, this season, our instructors are being very intentional about turning over decisions to the students, especially our more experienced students, by offering prompts, questions, and encouragement to ‘try it and see,’ rather than simply telling students what to do.”

10088793445_51e3788a46_zStaff encourage youth to take initiative, and with time students are able to progress through the “Steps” of Courageous Sailing, each one granting the student greater independence. The ultimate goal for many students is to progress until they become Instructors in Training, a program offered to older students.

“Many of our students ‘graduate’ into our Instructor in Training program, in which they are paid to develop their teaching, sailing, and professional skills, with the goal of becoming instructors in two years,” Bodde said. “For many of our youth, the idea of becoming a leader in the program they’ve grown up in is a huge motivating factor; we often hear kids in Step 1 and Swim Sail Science (two of our introductory programs) vowing to become instructors someday.”

One of Courageous Sailing’s goals for this summer was to expand opportunity for student choice of activities. IITs and staff have worked together to plan a variety of activities to keep youth occupied on rainy days, and students are given the chance to decide what they’d like to do during Extended Day time. This increase in decision-making power has been a “big hit with the kids,” according to Bodde, and students have responded positively to leadership both at sea and on land.

“Although it’s always a challenge for instructors to turn over control to the students in the boats (because of safety issues, and because the newer children can get overwhelmed by all the information that they are processing), the kids have been excited about the control and responsibility they have in their boats,” Bodde said.

She shared some particular examples of instances where young sailors especially thrived in leadership positions.  

“One particularly successful example is our Step 4 trip to one of the Harbor Islands, during which each of the students in the cruising class took charge of a boat of their peers in the dinghy (small boat) class, because they had learned all they needed to know to navigate safely and control a much larger boat than the other youth were used to,” Bodde said.

“Youth have taken charge on land too, during team building and in the classroom. Our favorite example is one of our Swim Sail Science students, who has dubbed himself Lunch Man, and taken it upon himself to help serve lunch (with the encouragement of the staff),” Bodde said. “He reorganized the setup of the serving line, and has now gotten the other kids so excited about it that he has ‘hired’ helpers, and leads regular meetings so that his ‘staff’ and he can discuss improvements to lunch time (which we’ve happily instituted).”

9684609427_6d0e502d2b_zIITs have enjoyed the benefits of expanded leadership opportunities, as well. This year, Courageous Sailing sent out a pre-season questionnaire to IITs to ask which professional development topics they’d like to focus on, and new and returning IITs were asked for suggestions and ideas during their interviews. This gave the program a better idea of what is important to the high schoolers.

“Our first Friday in-house professional development workshop was built around a few of these suggestions, and by all accounts the participants were invested and enthusiastic,” Bodde said. “The IITs have let me know that they feel like they have a true voice in planning their activities.”

Due in part to their ability to have a say in Courageous Sailing’s programming, IITs have expressed that “they are feeling that they’ve had the preparation that they need to feel confident” as instructors.

“As a group, the IITs agree that they have a lot of ownership over what they do every day, and that they’re working with the IIT trainers in partnership to plan activities that will help them build the skills that they feel they need to work on,” Bodde said.

As an overall theme, all members of the Courageous Sailing community have been positively impacted by the wide-spanning opportunities for youth leadership.

“Our instructors have reported that the youth have risen to the occasion, and that over the course of the first 3-week session, many students moved from constantly asking, ‘What should I do now? Should I tack? Is this right?’ to confidently making decisions and giving directions to their crewmates on their own,” Bodde said.

Over the course of the summer, students in Swim, Sail, Science and the IITs have benefitted from increased confidence in their sailing abilities, academic advancement, and an enhanced sense of responsibility that they can carry with them into the school year and beyond.

“For many of the sailors in our program, becoming more confident and independent (both in the boat and on land) is the biggest change that they notice in themselves after a summer at Courageous,” Bodde said. “We know that empowering youth to take on leadership roles is what makes this possible.”

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