Esther Wojcicki: Education Astronaut

A conversation with Esther Wojcicki, journalism/English teacher, education innovator and author

by Lisa Van Dusen / Palo Alto Weekly

Esther Wojcicki has been attending high school for more than 31 years and can't imagine not going to school every day. Being with her students is what fuels her, she said. And something must be happening there because one of her biggest challenges is to get the students to leave. 

Wojcicki, who founded the award-winning Palo Alto High School Journalism program in 1985, teaches journalism and English at Paly and serves as the faculty advisor for the school's student newspaper, The Campanile.

In addition, she champions a new approach to teaching, which she articulates in her 2014 book, "Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom." Woj advocates on the international lecture circuit. 


Her passion for combining traditional lecture methods with individual and group project-based learning stemmed, in part, from her early classroom experiences where she was forced to literally stay under a desk for hours at a time because of her then-unconventional "learning style."

Prior to occupying her fishbowl office on the first floor of the state-of-the-art Media Arts Center, Woj zoomed around the campus on a scooter from portable to portable. When she first started teaching at Paly in 1984, her tool kit consisted of a typewriter, X-acto knives, wax and a "big machine that printed out headlines" before moving to their first computers in 1987. 

The hallmark of her teaching philosophy sprang from her experience as a parent of three daughters. Woj's early days as a spouse of a Stanford University faculty member were spent finding a need and then filling it -- often with her daughters in tow. Whether canvassing their neighborhood to garner support for a park on campus or access to the Palo Alto Public Library system for Stanford residents, Woj modeled taking initiative and literally opening doors for others. 

She infused her students with the same confidence to take risks and to try new things. 

One former student, actor James Franco, whose paintings hang in the Media Art Center and who wrote the introduction to "Moonshots in Education," attributes his success, in part, to Woj's belief in him and his dreams. Woj is committed to providing "a real audience" for student writing, as well as the conditions for students to achieve mastery rather than chase a grade, Franco wrote. 

Fast forward from her humble beginnings as a 14-year-old "girl Friday" at her hometown newspaper, Woj now serves on the boards of a wide range of organizations focused on journalism and education, including the Alliance for Excellent Education and the Developmental Studies Center. She chairs the boards of Creative Commons and Learning Matters, consults with the U.S. Board of Education, presents at the Google Teacher Academy and frequently lectures internationally. 

Host/interview, Lisa Van Dusen

Video, Veronica Weber

Production Manager, Lavanya Mahadevan

This conversation took place on August 19th, 2015 at the Palo Alto High School Media Arts Center.