Paly journalism teacher pens book on innovative education

Esther Wojcicki to give Jan. 24 talk at Oshman Family JCC

When Palo Alto High School journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki told one of her classes what her new book, "Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom," is about, they burst into spontaneous cheers.

Wojcicki, an award-winning teacher who founded the Paly Media Arts program, sees "Moonshots" as an instruction manual for educators who have yet to make a shift from a rote podium-to-student style of teaching to project-based, collaborative learning that grants students more freedom and ownership over their own education. This shift, she said, is comparable to the effort it took for the first-ever moonshot that landed man on the moon in the 1960s.

"The reason I called it 'Moonshots in Education' is because I want to change the culture in the classrooms," Wojcicki said, "and that is like a moonshot. It's probably worse than a moonshot because getting teachers to stop lecturing (for) 50- or 90-minute periods all day -- I don't know what it's going to take."

The book itself serves as an example of Wojcicki's teaching philosophy, with chapters written by not only Wojcicki but also fellow journalism teacher Paul Kandell, a former Paly journalism student, a Google search expert and Lance Izumi, senior director of education studies at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco.

Wojcicki and several of her students will give a talk at the Oshman Family JCC in Palo Alto on Saturday, Jan. 24, about the book and their experiences in the classroom.

In "Moonshots," Wojcicki advocates for small-group projects, real-world applications and student autonomy. She said she made a compromise, asking that teachers unwilling to forgo all lecturing allot 50 percent of class time to more hands-on learning. (This 50-50 split is what "blended learning" refers to.)

"Right now, they don't have 50 percent of the time," Wojcicki said. "They don't even have 20 percent of the time. A lot of classes, they have zero time."

Wojcicki thinks much of what drives teachers' and schools' fear of making this shift is a pressure to meet standards and produce high test scores.

"A lot of school districts, if your test scores are down, instead of getting more funding, you get less funding. The system is upside down," she said. "I think the pressure (for teachers) is, those kids have to work and they have to learn this stuff because otherwise, I personally am going to lose my job, and I'm going to lose face in the community."

The book highlights classrooms in Palo Alto and beyond that do, however, give this time. It's on full display at Paly's journalism program, where more than 200 students independently (with teacher advisers) report, write and produce a total of eight publications (including an online news website and broadcast TV station). While Wojcicki gave this interview, staff for Paly newspaper The Campanile were busy at work at rows of computers in a separate, unsupervised classroom, putting together this week's edition with laser focus.

Former Campanile editor Maya Kitayama, now a freshman at Fordham University in New York City, described Wojcicki's teaching style as "just a little guidance and a whole lot of trust."

"The most unique thing about The Campanile is it's the only program where we as students take the learning and the work into our own hands," said Kitayama, who wrote a chapter in "Moonshots" on Paly music teacher Michael Najar's application of blended learning in an AP music theory class. "We work for the paper for the sake of the paper, not for the sake of a grade or a GPA."

"Moonshots" also advocates for use of technology in the classroom, with a chapter by Google research scientist Dan Russell, who studies the field of search, and several chapters on the history of technology in education by Izumi, who's written extensively on using technology to revolutionize learning.

Kandell's chapter is devoted to the importance of journalism education in teaching motivation and character development.

A short film that shows Wojcicki's classroom in action was also produced in conjunction with the book and will be posted on YouTube in a few weeks, Wojcicki said.

"If people think about a typical class ... everybody envisions the teacher standing up in the front of a room, an American flag next to her head and all the students sitting there in rows staring at the teacher with a pencil in their hand and a paper on the desk," she said. "I wanted to show them what it really looks like. And it looks like chaos, but they are learning."


When: Saturday, Jan. 24, at 7:30 p.m.

Where: Oshman Family JCC, Albert and Janet Schultz Cultural Arts Hall, 3921 Fabian Way, Palo Alto

Cost: $10 advance registration; $15 at the door


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7 people like this
Posted by David Bergen
a resident of Leland Manor/Garland Drive
on Jan 16, 2015 at 9:07 am

Ms. Wojcicki is fantastic, but she didn't "found(ed) the Paly journalism program in 1984". As someone who was on The Campanile student paper more than 10 years prior to that, I can testify that Paly journalism was alive and well long before 1984. It would be nice for an article on journalism to have some basic fact-checking!

1 person likes this
Posted by Chris Zaharias
a resident of Crescent Park
on Jan 16, 2015 at 5:33 pm

Chris Zaharias is a registered user.

The Woj prepared me for a career working in tech startups, where no one appears to be in charge until you realize you're in charge whether you're entry level or CXO. That, I think, is the essence of The Woj Teaching Method.

1 person likes this
Posted by Esther Wojcicki
a resident of College Terrace
on Jan 16, 2015 at 5:50 pm

I agree with David Bergen. I did not found the entire journalism program. The Campanile newspaper was there when I arrived in 1984. I did found all the other programs--Verde, the news magazine; InFocus, the broadcast program; Viking, the sports magazine; Voice, the online program; and C Magazine, the arts and entertainment magazine. The reason Paul Kandell, another Paly journalism teacher, calls me the founder is because I founded the overall Media Arts program which also includes the Campanile. Hope that explains it. I know it is confusing.

Like this comment
Posted by Marc Vincenti and Martha Cabot
a resident of Barron Park
on Jan 17, 2015 at 1:36 pm

Dear Palo Alto onliners,

For anyone how believes, as Esther Wojcicki does, in better ways for our high-schoolers to learn, and in more humane environments for them to do it in, and who wants to move from DISCUSSION to ACTION, we hope you'll look into our grassroots campaign to bring a healthier, happier life to Gunn High School.

Ours is a proposal to shrink classes to a friendlier size, moderate the amounts of homework, foster wise decisions about course loads, quiet the all-day distraction of cellphones, slow the bombardment of grade-reports so our kids have room to ride out the ups and downs of teenage life, and end the demoralizing impact of academic fraud—so that the 2,008 students and teachers of Gunn High School can grow, breathe, learn, thrive.

We'd love it if your interest in our six proposals, and your wish to DO SOMETHING, brought you to the School Board meeting this Tuesday, January 27th to join our chorus of support for a more student-centered, forgiving life at Gunn.

Martha Cabot and Marc Vincenti
Gunn sophomore and former Gunn English teacher

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Posted by Paul Kandell
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Jan 18, 2015 at 2:36 pm

Congrats to Esther on the book. I cannot believe how lucky I have been to have worked with her this past decade and a half at Paly.

I agree with her that the idea of "founding" in the discussion above is confusing. It is an especially useful term when we're talking in bulk about the start of the modern era of the Paly journalism program (which we’ve only lately started calling the “media arts” program, once we started including photography and video production). That era certainly begins with Esther, the sole driving force for the program for 15 years or so before other advisers, including me, came to Paly around 2000.

In terms of the individual programs in the journalism program, "founded" certainly works perfectly for Verde. Esther was the visionary who set the program up on her own in 1999 and advised the magazine for the first year before turning it over to me. Similarly, Esther started the InFocus broadcast program on her own and ran it for a semester before handing it off to Mike McNulty, who advised the program straight through until his retirement last year.

Things are more complicated when we talk about The Paly Voice. Yes, Esther took the lead — even if it was always a joint project — in setting the bureaucracy in motion to create a spring 2002 semester-long after-school Web publishing program that would grow to be a formal class in the fall; in finding a tech mentor for our first set of students in that early exploration; and in helping arrange a stipend for my former webmaster from Lowell High School, whom I recruited to code the prototype of the website over that summer and provide guidance for the program's first students in how to use and modify it. I was involved in nearly all of these steps, which made sense given that when I was hired at Paly to start in August 2000 it was with an appreciation of my work in advising The Lowell on the Web, which was one of the pioneering national leaders in scholastic journalism on the Web, and an understanding that I would advise a journalism Web staff at Paly. I shared the role of faculty sponsor of the after-school program and led many of its activities, including the discussion of naming The Paly Voice; wrote the first-of-its-kind UC-approved curriculum for the Web Journalism class; and was -- and have been -- the only teacher of that class from Day 1, and the only adviser to The Paly Voice, which functions as do the bulk of our programs largely independently of Esther and The Campanile. In this sense, it is more useful to recognize the two of us, if distinctions need to be made, as having co-founded the program.

With the Viking magazine, citing a single "founder" is similarly inadequate, as there are multiple moments of foundation. In spring 2007, to her great credit, Esther inspired a group of students in her 9th grade English class to start a sports magazine, helped them develop a prototype, and worked with the administration to get a Sports Magazine class approved for the following year. She then worked with me and the admin to find, hire, and integrate into Paly life a teacher for the program to begin in fall 2007. That teacher, Ellen Austin, was the first official adviser for the Viking from Day 1 of the class and the one who led the staff to all of its early successes, and to a slew of significant local and national awards over the next five years, including her being recognized as a Dow Jones News Fund National Journalism Teacher of the Year. Any fair accounting of the founding of the Viking should include Ellen's absolutely central contributions to Viking and an awareness that her contributions, too, were foundational.

All of these publications have been core elements of the moonshot that is Paly journalism, and it has been a great privilege to be a part of it and to share in Esther’s vision. I can’t wait to see where we take this rocketship next.

A side note: The pre-modern era of Paly journalism dates all the way back to the first issue of The Campanile in 1918, and there's the Madrono yearbook, too, which has similarly long roots. Paly Librarian Rachel Kellerman is leading an ambitious project to find and archive all of the long history of these publications – in fully searchable text. You can read more about that here: Web Link

Like this comment
Posted by Educator
a resident of Portola Valley
on Jan 19, 2015 at 1:00 pm


Like this comment
Posted by AlexDeLarge
a resident of Midtown
on Jul 25, 2015 at 1:04 am

Yeah! I'm a PAUSD product from day one through high school (Paly 77). I've been influenced and have great memories
of teachers who cared.

Like this comment
Posted by outsider
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Feb 2, 2016 at 2:10 pm

50 percent is telling the kids what is on their rubric and other is surfing email and facebook while kids work on rubrics or take tests. Kids are also happy to play on phones during "work time"

This has been true of 80percent of all classes at Paly for my kid in the last 3 years. There are a few wonderful teachers that are so appreciated that actually do teach. Most of them act like giving instruction is a favor and most only know how to evaluate with their own made up tests that do not match their own teaching. So... go Esther! Mentor this group!

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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