Palo Alto High School journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki wants to transform the classroom experience for the 21st century — not just on the local level, but worldwide
“A moonshot is a project like what Kennedy described in 1961,” Esther Wojcicki tells me, referring to the president’s ambitious goal of sending an American to the moon before the decade’s end (which did happen, in 1969). “It’s something we definitely need to do, but it’s really tough to do. Everybody should have some project that they want to do to make the world a better place.”
Among the longtime (and beloved) Palo Alto High School journalism teacher’s moonshot ideas is “changing the way education is delivered,” she says. As part of her Global Moonshots in Education (globalmoonshots.org), she advocates that educators “spend 80 percent of their time teaching the way you’ve always been teaching — which is direct instruction, teacher in charge — and 20 percent of the time, give kids the opportunity to control what they’re learning. It’s really import-ant for kids to take a chance and to feel empowered.” Through Global Moonshots, Wojcicki and her team offer “hand-holding” for school districts who want to develop such a curriculum.
“THIS CURRICULUM DOESN’T JUST TRAIN PEOPLE TO BE JOURNALISTS; IT TRAINS PEOPLE FOR THE 21ST CENTURY”— Esther Wojcicki
Her push to shift the way people around the world view education also calls for embracing technology. (This past December alone, Wojcicki spoke with officials in Belgium, Germany and Mexico.) “We no longer have to sit in a boring lecture, take notes and then regurgitate it on a test,” she maintains. “Everybody’s learning on their phone or their computer. Universities and schools who are not taking advantage of that, who are actually banning electronic devices, are completely out of touch with how people learn today.” Case in point: She uses YouTube to sup-port her teaching. “I have the kids find information about the topic, share it and we talk about it,” she says. “That’s much more active learning than sitting there and falling asleep listening to a teacher.”
Wojcicki’s ideology draws on her 35 years as an educator. Teaching, however, wasn’t her initial profession of choice. As a teen growing up in Southern California, she was a “girl Friday reporter,” as she puts it, for the Sunland-Tujunga Record Ledger. She was paid 3 cents per word to cover everything from city council meetings to sports, and even wrote obituaries. Later, while earning her master’s degree from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, she worked part time at the Berkeley Daily Gazette.
Upon graduating in 1963, she was dismayed that positions for female journalists at major publications were often limited to the “women’s section, where you reported on anything connected to the home,” she recalls. (Since it was a smaller paper with fewer reporters, the Daily Gazette welcomed her contributions to multiple sections.) When her physicist husband, Stan, was hired at Stanford University, the couple moved to the Peninsula. As she raised three daughters — Susan, the CEO of YouTube; Janet, a professor of pediatrics and epidemiology at UCSF; and Anne, the founder/CEO of 23andMe — Wojcicki also took on jobs as a substitute teacher and a ghost writer for Stanford professors, as well as volunteer roles in the community.
In 1984, she was brought on as a journalism teacher at Paly. “I wanted to be a journalist, but as a woman, I was discriminated against,” she says. “I decided: If I can’t be a journalist, why not teach journalism?” Her first year, there were 19 students in the journalism program, which produced a six-page newspaper that came out every two or three weeks. Within three years, the number of students doubled. A turning point for the program came in 1987, after Wojcicki was awarded an education technology grant that resulted in Paly receiving seven Macintosh computers. “I had no idea how to even turn them on,” she recounts. “I didn’t know what scrolling was and then the whole screen disappeared and I figured I had ruined this thing permanently.” Wojcicki ultimately admitted to her students that she didn’t have a clue about how to operate the machines. “They were thrilled to help me out,” she continues. “We spent hours on the floor, underneath the desks. We spent hours at Fry’s Electronics. And we got them all set up.”
Flash-forward several decades and Wojcicki is now the founder of Paly’s Media Arts Center, housed in a multimillion-dollar 24,000-square-foot facility that opened in 2014. She oversees an award-winning program with a dozen publications across various media formats — newspaper, magazine, television, radio, video and podcasts. There are 700 students and seven additional teachers. Although there were naysayers over the years — those who had their doubts as she sought to expand — “now it’s a prized program,” she observes. “It teaches more of the skills that students need for the 21st century than any other program in the district.”
Indeed, Wojcicki firmly believes that “journalism is the curriculum for this century,” she says. “It includes technology, paying attention to what’s going on in the world today, and the four Cs: collaboration, communication, creativity and critical thinking. This curriculum doesn’t just train people to be journalists; it trains people for the 21st century.” For example, she points out, understanding the difference between fact and opinion can weed out fake news. Wojcicki is currently involved with the University of Oregon’s Journalistic Education Initiative, which is focused on the benefits of journalism-based teaching. “It’s not fair that thousands of my students are very successful because they have this mindset. Why can’t all students be successful? They should all have this opportunity. So let’s get more teachers to do the same thing.”