National Award-Winning Palo Alto Teacher, Esther “Woj” Wojcicki, Takes Unusual Approach – In Mercury News
Respect and kindness can do wonders.
Just ask journalism teacher Esther Wojcicki.
Now in her 34th year at Palo Alto High School, she has used an approach she calls TRICK — trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness — to build what might be the biggest and best high school journalism program in the nation. Along the way, she has impacted the lives of students and been beloved by many.
For her contributions to education, Wojcicki recently became the sixth teacher to be recognized by Honored, a nonprofit established to promote teachers and elevate the profession.
Paly principal Kim Diorio calls Wojcicki “a kid magnet.”
“People feel really connected to her and supported by her,” Diorio said.
Wojcicki started at Paly in 1984 with 20 journalism students. Now the program includes more than 600 of approximately 1,500 students in grades 10 through 12.
Why have so many students gravitated to her?
“Because I treated them with respect, part of that TRICK,” Wojcicki said. “I believe that every kid has potential of one kind or another, and I’m kind of helping them figure out what they want to do. I don’t tell them what they have to do, I want to know what they want to do. And then I see if I can help them reach their goals. I think that makes a difference.
“If you are personally interested in the child, they can sense it in about five minutes, and I think they are forever grateful because most schools are not like that. Most schools tell you what to learn, and if you don’t follow instructions then you get a bad grade and you suffer. My system is kind of the reverse.”
Actor James Franco is one of her many former students who has gone on to do big things. To him, “Woj” is a hero.
In a video tribute for the My Hero Project, Franco talked about how Wojcicki empowers students by giving them control of their work, engaging them in ways that other teachers don’t.
“Woj” says Franco was a great student, although an extraordinarily shy one.
“He had a little bit of a battle with his parents about career choice, and my thinking is, the child’s always right, you can’t force someone to do something they don’t want to do,” she said. “And so, of course, I supported his idea. He was going to be a writer and he wanted to be an actor. I was just a supporter.
“He’s not the only one, there are hundreds of kids out there that feel the same way. Basically, I think that’s why I got this award. They’re everywhere.”
Forest Key, another of Wojcicki’s former students, has started up three successful tech companies including his current endeavor, Pixvana, a virtual reality company. He said he could not have done any of that without Wojcicki’s lessons and inspiration.
“She is one of those educators that really sets the bar for what a great teacher can be, and how just one great teacher can change a life dramatically, as she has mine,” Key said. “She is one of the most influential people in my life. I know that she has had similar impact on hundreds, if not thousands or tens of thousands of students directly. Through her broader work to set up educational guidelines and curriculums, I think she is having a global impact.”
Former Paly student Liz Gannes, now the managing editor of online radio startup 60dB.com, said “Woj” had more impact on her life than any other teacher.
“It was pretty different than your typical memorable educator from the movies or wherever — no grand inspiring lectures, no breakthrough heart-to-heart advising, no amazing curriculum,” she said. “… Woj’s teaching is built on the nature of journalism itself. Unlike most high school work — where you’re submitting a paper or a test to an audience of one, and it will end up shelved in a folder somewhere — when you’re writing for the public, with your own name at the top, you’re invited to take yourself seriously. Woj created a framework where we could do that, way before we were qualified, and it was empowering and addictive.”
Wojcicki’s brand of teaching is summed up in her book, “Moonshots in Education: Blended Learning in the Classroom.” Based on TRICK, the 2-year-old book has drawn interest worldwide, bringing educators to Palo Alto to be tutored and taking her around the world to instruct.
“A lot of people are interested in it,” Wojcicki said in a Sept. 12 interview after a trip to Argentina. She spent much of her summer talking about her approach in six European countries.
At Paly, her work to grow the program is reflected in a new state-of-the-art, 25,000-square-foot Media Arts Center. Prior to a successful bond campaign to pay for the building and two others, journalism classes were spread around campus in portable, trailer-style buildings.
“It has made a huge difference,” Wojcicki said. “This media arts building is nothing like the typical classroom buildings. … There is a lot of open space, a lot of glass. It’s transparent. You can see from one room into the other.”
Wojcicki’s journalism career began in high school. She worked as a freelance reporter at a weekly newspaper in a small town north of Burbank. She said she doesn’t know why she chose that career path.
“I decided it was easier for me to apply for a job at the local newspaper than to work in a store or do anything else,” she said.
Wojcicki said she was paid 3 cents per word by the Sunland-Tujunga Record-Ledger. An average newspaper article might be 500 words, which would have brought $15.
“I wrote so much that I earned a lot of money,” Wojcicki said. “It was crazy, but I loved it. The guys there thought I was great. I did all the stuff they didn’t want to do. I’d go to the city council meetings, which were so boring. They sent me every place they didn’t want to go, and they taught me how to do it. It was education on the job. A whole group of men, then there was me, the girl. There I was.”
She also wrote for the Glendale newspaper and even the Los Angeles Times — all before high school graduation.
After high school, she moved to the Bay Area and wrote for the Berkeley Daily Gazette. It didn’t pay enough, so she also worked as a model.
“That paid the bills” and gave her “psychological gratification,” she said. “Being a model is mindless work, just stand there and do nothing. But it paid a lot of money.”
Then, she married.
“That sort of did it for my (writing) career,” she said.
The newlyweds moved to Europe — she earned degrees from the University of Geneva and the famed Sorbonne (University of Paris) — then moved back and settled in Palo Alto. Three daughters followed in rapid succession, then Wojcicki took a job as a substitute teacher in 1980.
“I always was a writer,” said Wojcicki, who did ghost writing and wrote for community-oriented newsletters and the old Peninsula Times Tribune, which she recalled as “kind of boring.”
“I didn’t want to write women’s news, I wanted to write real news,” she said.
When she wasn’t writing or teaching, Wojcicki assembled a highly successful family unit. Her husband Stanley is a professor emeritus of physics at Stanford. Oldest daughter Susan is the CEO of YouTube, daughter Janet is a professor of pediatric gastroenterology at UCSF and youngest daughter Anne is the CEO of biotech company 23andMe.
The award from Honored came with a $5,000 prize, as well as a $1,000 grant to be used to enhance another teacher’s classroom. Wojcicki donated it to a Florida teacher to buy computers for kindergartners at a school where 100 percent of the students are from low-income families.
Another part of the national prize from Honored: Having Vanity Fair contributing editor Bethany McLean write a profile of the award winner for Honored.org. In the article, Kaija Hsiao, a former editor of the Paly student newspaper, describes Wojcicki as a legend on campus.
“Once students are a part of her classroom,” Hsiao said, “they never really leave.”