How a Teacher Is Opening Up a Whole New World for Seattle Teens
We sit down with Center School teacher Alex Scilletta to find out how a simple snowshoe adventure can make a difference in the lives of students.
An energetic man of science with a trim beard, Alessandro (Alex) Scilletta admits he took an unusual route to teaching. After working 10 years in active duty Air Force and Air National Guard, he took a chance on teaching (and the Northwest)—and ended up loving both.
When Alex's students at Center School, a Seattle public high school near the iconic Space Needle, asked him to head their Outdoor Environmental Education Club, he extended his classroom outside into the Pacific Northwest’s wild landscapes that he had come to love.
One day, when the club started brainstorming about what more they could do besides day hikes, Alex suggested snowshoeing.
Bingo! None of the kids had ever snowshoed, and were excited at the prospect. But there was the problem of gear. Not everyone has snowshoes. Not everyone can afford boots and other winter equipment.
So Alex did a little research and discovered Washington Trails Association's Outdoor Leadership Training program. The program trains educators and community leaders to take young people outside safely, and then provides tools (like gear or transportation grants) to make those outings possible. This year, the program has supported more than 80 outings for groups of youth and families with more than 2,000 participants
“Lo and behold, if you participate, you have access to a gear library!” said Alex. He joined a Snowshoe Workshop, and was ready to go.
The day of reckoning arrived in the form of a snowy morning in the central Cascades. Alex and eight high school sophomores, juniors and seniors ventured out together on snowshoes for the first time, with all the right supplies.
The teen novices and their fearless leaders started out with a celebratory “toast to water,” a great way to remind everyone to stay hydrated in cold temperatures.
After a couple hours of talking, laughing and trekking through the woods, Alex decided to try an activity he learned during his Outdoor Leadership Training workshop called “alone time.” It's a rare chance for students to walk by themselves in the woods with their own thoughts, just noticing and quietly enjoying what's around them. Simple, yet powerful.
Alex left the kids with instructions for each one of them to follow him at his signal, starting out every 60 seconds. He snowshoed ahead for several minutes on a small wooded trail until it suddenly opened up onto a huge, snow-covered clearing surrounded by trees, with mountains in the distance.
“This is the place,” he thought.
It began snowing more heavily. One by one, at their own pace, each teen found their way through the snow-filled forest and, arriving without a word, picked a spot under the sheltering trees to wait for the others.
“Everyone just got it. We sat there for a good half-hour looking out across the field and watching it snow. In silence. It was a great experience,” Alex said. It's a memory powerful enough he thinks it will stick with him for the rest of his life.
Days later, an email arrived from the mother of a young man who had never done anything outdoors. The snowshoe outing had been outside his comfort zone. She thanked Alex for opening up a whole new world for her son, who now participates skillfully in the club hikes and snowshoe trips because his teacher introduced him to the outdoors with an opportunity he wouldn’t have had otherwise.
If you’re a teacher or youth worker who wants to connect kids with the natural world, Alex says the Outdoor Leadership Training is a slam dunk.
“The WTA leaders were fantastic. If you’re worried about safety, don’t be. Safety is the highest priority. Everyone’s there in the interest of making other people’s lives better. That’s why I did it.”
Alex and the club have done several hikes since, and he hopes to develop plans for the students' first overnight backpacking trip, thanks in part to the training and resources provided by WTA and funding from members.
Alex added, "If you take a student who prefers to be inside, help them take a chance on themselves and strap on a pair of boots or snowshoes, they can’t help but fall in love with it."