Esther Wojcicki -- "Woj" to her friends and the Palo Alto High School (Paly) journalism and English students she has taught for nearly a third of a century -- has embarked on an international mission some see as akin to flying to the moon, a "moonshot" dream.
Her vision is to refocus education to teach young people how to think.
Journalism does that, she believes. Learning to research a story, interview sources, arrange content and write tightly replaces rote memorization and studying strictly to pass tests with analytical skills and clarity of focus, she feels. Those thinking skills are urgently important in today's fast-moving world of technology and instantaneous communication of ideas -- or trivia and propaganda.
In late June Wojcicki (pronounced wo-jis-key) spoke to the European Union's European SchoolNet about her ideas. "I told them the same thing: 'Why aren't we using technology to foster the ability to think?'" she recounted.
She also is working with Mexican educators. And she's still working locally. She has cut back from full-time teaching at Paly to work part time in the Palo Alto Unified School District administration, pushing for a stronger critical-thinking curriculum districtwide.
She and other teachers at Paly have created what is now recognized as the largest high school journalism program in the nation, attracting several hundred students. The program occupies a new, state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, a longtime dream. The curriculum includes a student newspaper, a feature magazine, a sports magazine, video production and a website.
A professional journalist before going into teaching, Woj has been recognized nationally as a teacher. She was named Northern California "Journalism Teacher of the Year" in 1990 and California Journalism Teacher of the Year in 2002. In 2009 she was awarded the Gold Key by the Columbia Scholastic Press Association. She helped update the University of California's statewide journalism curriculum.
Her extracurricular activities include being vice chair of Creative Commons; chair of the board of Learning Matters; a board member of the Developmental Studies Center and Alliance for Excellent Education; and an advisory board member of the THNK School of Creative Leadership.
She blogs regularly for the Huffington Post. "At one point I got a million hits," she recalled.
For more than two years she has produced a daily email-based "Woj's World News," linking recipients to articles she finds of interest for more than 100,000 subscribers.
In early 2015 she and co-author Lance Izumi published a book, "Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom," exploring facets of the huge challenge of melding how-to-think with current curriculum. Its forward by actor James Franco tells how Woj's teaching and real-world learning impacted his life.
She has a personal life: She and Stanford physics professor Stanley Wojcicki have three daughters: Susan, CEO of YouTube (whom Forbes magazine just listed among the top-100 most influential women); Janet, a researcher, assistant professor of pediatrics and a Fulbright Award-winning anthropologist; and Anne, co-founder of 23andMe, a genetics/DNA testing and ancestry-tracing service. She has eight grandchildren.
How does she have time for all that?
"You're not the only one asking me that question," she said in a July 7 phone catch-up chat. "I have a very high energy level, which makes it possible to have classes with 80 people in them.
"The reason I can do it is that everything kind of dovetails; my activities all work together -- plus I don't sleep much."
She believes that the best method of teaching thinking is by imparting techniques of journalism: boiling a subject down to its most important and/or interesting aspects and then writing succinctly and clearly, starting with importance in the lead paragraph or "lede."
A few years back Woj shared her formative ideas with me over lunch at Town & Country Village, across from Paly. Her core idea was to try to get a journalism segment built into mainstream high school classes, whatever the topic. She ran into defensive resistance from fellow teachers reluctant to modify course content and from some skeptical administrators.
But times have changed, after years of national discussion over innovations such as Common Core standards and mounting criticism of standardized testing. She sees educators increasingly waking up to the notion that the most effective thing is not lecturing but engaging students in special projects and challenges -- by definition harder to measure than using standardized tests.
"In journalism and even science writing the kids actually learn critical-thinking skills, which are not being taught in our schools today. It's a tragedy because without the ability to think critically people don't understand what's happening around them.
"During the Brexit vote in Britain the No. 1 search item on Google was 'What is the European Union?'" she said. Better critical-thinking skills "might have made a difference" in the vote.
There is perhaps irony in that Woj began her teaching career at Paly in 1984, the year selected by George Orwell for his famous book, "1984," foretelling a world where thinking is forbidden, even punished.
She took over the venerable Campanile student newspaper (founded in 1918) and became principal founder of the expansive Media Arts Program of today. She worked with fellow teacher Paul Kandell, who joined Paly in 2000 and pioneered Paly's award-winning web-based program, The Paly Voice, and, since 2007, with Ellen Austin, who focused on the Viking sports magazine when it was created that year. Teacher Mike McNulty advised the InFocus broadcast program, founded by Woj, from 1999 until he retired in 2014.
Today a major challenge to thinking may be simple distraction, with the technologies of instant communication invading lives of young and older people alike. Too often the stream, in addition to vast information, conveys just shallow sniping along with the omnipresent marketing of products and political candidates, wherein propaganda obscures analysis. And texting can supplant in-depth conversations.
As with television, Wojcicki believes today's wonderously multifaceted technology can be refocused to enhance the ability to think, individually and freely -- and for the sheer exhilaration of it.