First Person: A conversation with Esther Wojcicki, journalism/English teacher, education innovator and author | News | Palo Alto Online |


First Person: A conversation with Esther Wojcicki, journalism/English teacher, education innovator and author


Esther Wojcicki has been attending high school for more than 31 years and can't imagine not going to school every day. Being with her students is what fuels her, she said. And something must be happening there because one of her biggest challenges is to get the students to leave.

Wojcicki, who founded the award-winning Palo Alto High School Journalism program in 1985, teaches journalism and English at Paly and serves as the faculty advisor for the school's student newspaper, The Campanile.

In addition, she champions a new approach to teaching, which she articulates in her 2014 book, "Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom." Woj advocates on the international lecture circuit.

Her passion for combining traditional lecture methods with individual and group project-based learning stemmed, in part, from her early classroom experiences where she was forced to literally stay under a desk for hours at a time because of her then-unconventional "learning style."

Prior to occupying her fishbowl office on the first floor of the state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, Woj zoomed around the campus on a scooter from portable to portable. When she first started teaching at Paly in 1984, her tool kit consisted of a typewriter, X-acto knives, wax and a "big machine that printed out headlines" before moving to their first computers in 1987.

The hallmark of her teaching philosophy sprang from her experience as a parent of three daughters. Woj's early days as a spouse of a Stanford University faculty member were spent finding a need and then filling it -- often with her daughters in tow. Whether canvassing their neighborhood to garner support for a park on campus or access to the Palo Alto Public Library system for Stanford residents, Woj modeled taking initiative and literally opening doors for others.

She infused her students with the same confidence to take risks and to try new things.

One former student, actor James Franco, whose paintings hang in the Media Art Center and who wrote the introduction to "Moonshots in Education," attributes his success, in part, to Woj's belief in him and his dreams. Woj is committed to providing "a real audience" for student writing, as well as the conditions for students to achieve mastery rather than chase a grade, Franco wrote.

Fast forward from her humble beginnings as a 14-year-old "girl Friday" at her hometown newspaper, Woj now serves on the boards of a wide range of organizations focused on journalism and education, including the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Developmental Studies Center. She chairs the boards of Creative Commons and Learning Matters, consults with the U.S. Board of Education, presents at the Google Teacher Academy and frequently lectures internationally.

Host/interview, Lisa Van Dusen

Video, Veronica Weber

Production Manager, Lavanya Mahadevan

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6 people like this
Posted by Barron Park dad
a resident of Barron Park
on Nov 15, 2015 at 5:49 pm

Ester's example in innovative teaching is wonderful. Project based learning is one of the key pillars of secondary education in the 21st century, and she's been doing it for a while!

The question is, what causes Palo Alto to have so darn few of these types of innovative teachers? (I don't think this fact is even worth debating.)

Is it that teachers are culturally conservative? Or is there something about our 'system' in the school district that inhibits innovation like this? Too many layers of approval needed before a new idea-program-initiative can be implemented? Parents who want the traditional curriculum and don't want 'new'?

This is worth looking into by the school board.

8 people like this
Posted by District Teacher
a resident of Midtown
on Nov 15, 2015 at 8:56 pm

@Barron Park dad, I agree with you and wish there were more like her, including myself. My gut response is that she doesn't have to worry about 1.) standardized test scores being scrutinized and 2.) state or Common Core standards to meet. Just a thought, not looking for a fight and not whining. Love my job.

13 people like this
Posted by QuestionNeverAsked
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Nov 16, 2015 at 1:09 am

I wish the interviewer had asked Woj her role in the Verde Rape Culture articles. Did she act on student reports of sexual harrassment as a teacher? Investigate per title IX?

Or as a journalist and write stories as if from confidential a sources?

Were the facts she learned dealt with appropriately; or mined for journalistic gold?

4 people like this
Posted by James
a resident of College Terrace
on Nov 16, 2015 at 9:55 am

Project-based learning has its generates student interest, involves research and has some role in future jobs. However, the local science fairs can attest to the fact that those project-based projects that win top prizes are done by students who have a firm base in the fundamentals. The much-maligned "tiger moms" should be looked to to provide some advice about why their highly drilled kids do so well in the project-based classes/competitions.

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