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."
IF YOU'RE GOING...
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