"Once students are a part of her classroom they never really leave."
California’s celebrated Palo Alto High School, or “Paly,” is in the heart of the Silicon Valley technology revolution. You would expect to find engineers. But it’s a little surprising that the school is home to one of the largest high school journalism programs in the country. Students produce nine publications ranging from the standard—a school newspaper called The Campanile—to the stylish—a fashion magazine called “C,” which is a takeoff on the New York Times’ “T” magazine. Almost 600 students participate, which Kaija Hsiao, who edited The Campanile her senior year, points out is almost a quarter of the student body.
It is all the brainchild of one longtime teacher named Esther Wojcicki—“Woj” or “The Woj” to her students—who began to revitalize the The Campanile back in 1984. In 2014, when students were making Campanile sweatshirts, they printed them with this phrase: “Woj Your Back.” The next year, shirts read, “In Woj We Trust.”
Woj was unafraid to experiment and ahead of her time, and her passion for teaching has made her beloved by her students. “She is really quite a legend on our campus,” says Hsiao. “She’s a kid magnet,” says the principal of Paly, Kim Diorio. “People feel really connected to her and supported by her.” When I ask Woj, who is strikingly tall with grey-tinged blond hair, a mix of sophistication, and just a lingering touch of San Francisco hippie, if students ever tell her that she changed their lives, she responds, “All the time! Literally, once a day!”
The oldest child of Russian Jewish immigrants and the first in her family to attend college, Woj has been teaching for 33 years—“longer than some of my students have been alive,” she laughs. She initially worked as a journalist, but found herself, back in the not-so-female friendly days of the 1960s and 1970s, relegated to the women’s pages, and stopped after she had three children. (Her daughters are Susan, the CEO of YouTube; Janet, a Fulbright Scholarship-winning doctor; and Anne, the CEO of genetics company 23andMe.) In Woj’s early years, she taught both journalism and English, essentially teaching two classes at the same time until she convinced the school administrators that journalism was important. “I came from a public school in Los Angeles that had 3,000 students, and I never had a favorite teacher,” she says. “But I remember always thinking I could do better.”
At the core of her belief in the importance of journalism is her conviction that learning to write is a critical skill, because, as she says, “Writing clearly helps you think clearly.” She adds, “The number one thing people do is communicate,” and she ticks off the key lessons, all of them critical to success (and sanity) in the modern world, that you can learn from journalism: Distinguishing fact from fiction. Knowing the source. Getting to the point. Being concise.
She insists that her students write material so that people want to read it, not just because a teacher has to read it, and she argues that everyone, but everyone, can be taught to write. When she taught English and beginning journalism, she would start the class by asking students to write for ten minutes about something they’d done, or something they were thinking about. “They’d freak out,” she says. “You want me to write for that long? On what topic? You’re not going to tell me what to do? At the beginning of the semester, they were all stymied, but they all learned.” She says that when someone complains about writer’s block, she asks, “Can you speak? People have writer’s block because they think differently when they speak and when they write.”
"She’s a kid magnet. People feel really connected to her and supported by her."
Principal Kim Diorio
Woj has always had her own style. She has long been a champion of “learning by doing” or, as she explains, “The teacher needs to be a facilitator, a coach, not a lecturer.” Diorio, who first met Woj about a decade ago, recalls that, back then, “It seemed like she was a maverick. It was looked upon unfavorably by other teachers here.” But Woj knew it was working for her kids. Now, Diorio notes, “We understand that the role of teaching has changed, and people can appreciate Esther’s brilliance.” Indeed, Diorio says that, about three years ago, the whole district began moving toward a more student-centered learning environment. “For many teachers, there’s a control element to teaching, and it feels better if you have control,” she says. “Esther was OK with chaos in the classroom. It takes a unique personality to let students flourish in that.”
There is, of course, a philosophy behind this, which Woj calls her “TRICK.” “TRICK” stands for trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. Of those, the biggest one is trust. She is well known for guiding students with a light touch, and doing a “Woj check” before publications go out the door. “She really trusts her kids,” says Diorio. Hsiao, who took Woj’s introductory journalism class during her sophomore year, became the editor-in-chief of The Campanile her senior year. In that role, she had a staff of 80 to manage, an enormous amount of copy to edit, and a class to teach. “It was quite intense,” she says. She remembers one day when she was teaching and was expecting Woj to show up. So she called, only to find that Woj was giving a talk in Italy. Hsaio went on with the class. “It’s that level of trust that sets her apart,” Hsiao says. “She can leave me to manage 80 people without any notice because she knows I will handle it and it will be fine.”
Another one of Woj’s key principles is that work in her classroom should mimic journalism in the real world as much as possible. As part of that, says Hsiao, you get unlimited revisions to your work product in Woj’s beginning journalism class, just as you would if an editor were working with a new reporter in a newsroom. “To her, it’s not OK for a student to hear that a paper is bad without having the chance to make it better,” says Hsiao. “Her policy is that you will get an “A” eventually if you put in the effort. It might be the fourth time, but she doesn’t penalize you for taking the time to learn.”
When I ask Woj what she thinks makes a great teacher, she says, “I think it requires a passion for helping people be the best they can be.” She quickly turns concrete. “You have to have a gift for breaking a subject down into bite-sized pieces,” she says. “If students think they can’t, then they won’t. If a teacher is a subject matter expert, but can’t break the subject into bite-sized pieces, she isn’t going to be able to teach.”
Woj is also a great observer of her students. “At an early point in our relationship, she noticed my ability to teach and inspire others,” says Hsaio. “I think because of this, she gave me opportunities to make a difference in the education space.” For instance, Hsaio says that, during her sophomore year and thanks to Woj’s encouragement, Hsaio and other students created a prototype of an English language/journalism curriculum for Khan Academy. That project helped foster Hsaio’s interest in what she calls “facilitating knowledge distribution,” which in her view is what journalism does.
Woj’s support for her students also extends well beyond the classroom in ways that are both personal and professional. Hsaio, who is transgender, is now taking a semester off from Lewis & Clark, where she is majoring in International Affairs and minoring in Political Economy, to transition. Thanks to a recommendation from Woj, she’s working at issuu, a decade-old digital publishing platform. “The whole journalism community knows where to come if they need someone,” Woj says. “I am an informal job agency.” “Once students are a part of her classroom they never really leave,” says Hsaio. “She treats them like colleagues.”
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"Her policy is that you will get an 'A' eventually if you put in the effort. It might be the fourth attempt, but she doesn’t penalize you for taking the time to learn."
That attitude, in turn, has fostered a network among Paly graduates who worked for one of the publications. Hsaio, for instance, is part of a Facebook group of former editors of The Campanile that includes The Economist media editor Gady Epstein, senior editor of MIT Technology Review Rachel Metz, Facebook veteran Nik Ajagu, and others.
When Diorio met Woj ten years ago, she was teaching in a temporary and overcrowded portable classroom, with 60 or 70 students crammed into a small space. But in 2014, Paly opened its brand new Media Arts Center, a state-of-the-art 24,000-square-foot center featuring, among other amenities unusual for a high school, a studio for the daily newscast. The Center, which is sort of an ode to Woj, was funded partly by private donors but largely by a highly competitive $2.7 million Career Technical Education grant. “We had all these opportunities that Esther has fought for in so many ways,” says Hsaio.
True to form, even after all these years, multiple awards, and so many successful students, Woj doesn’t view her work as mission accomplished. Now, she’s pushing to replace English classes around the country with a semester of journalism. This, in her view, is every bit as necessary as driver’s education is. “If you don’t learn how to drive, you get killed,” she says. “The same is true without media education.” Ahead of her time, indeed.
Kaija and Woj catching up
Woj and her former student, journalist Rachel Metz
Newspapers adorn the walls of Woj's classroom
Photography by Todd Tankersley
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