Name: Esther Wojcicki
Home: On the Stanford campus
Position: Teacher and founder of the Palo Alto High School journalism program
J.: Palo Alto High has the largest high school journalism program in the nation, with an array of award-winning online and print student publications. Have things come a long way since you arrived as a teacher in 1984?
Esther Wojcicki: There were only 19 students in the whole journalism program back then. They put out a six-page paper (The Campanile) and the back page was always a calendar. I didn’t have a grand vision I was going to develop a program that was going to be as large as what we have today, but I did have a vision that I was going to revolutionize The Campanile. It was just a little rag. I thought it was ridiculous.
J.: Are you a renegade in your approach to teaching?
EW: I’m a born journalist. I’m an investigative reporter, I don’t follow rules for the most part, and I’m very good at finding out information. Most teachers are just the opposite. They follow all the rules and they do exactly as they’re told.
J.: How have administrators reacted?
EW: The greatest challenge was getting the administration to accept my style of collaborative learning and empowering the students. I allow the students to be collaborative with me. This was the hardest thing of all because the teacher was required to stand in front of the classroom and lecture.
J.: You have said that you think every American student should study journalism or media arts. Why?
EW: Journalism is simply a tool to teach kids how to think, how to ask questions, how to go against the grain, how to say, “Oh my God, that doesn’t make sense! Let me ask that question again.” We need a nation of people who actually think. We don’t have that. We have a nation of people trained to take multiple-choice tests.
J.: What are you dealing with in trying to teach journalism to kids?
EW: Can they write a story? Can they find the information? Can they interview? Can they tell fact from opinion? Can they put the most important information first? Boy, I’ll tell you, most kids can’t do any of that. And most adults can’t, either.
J.: Palo Alto High is constructing a media arts building that will include a production facility. Impressive.
EW: It’s one of the first in the nation in a high school. It recognizes the importance of media arts in the curriculum today.
J.: How does your dedication to tikkun olam (repairing the world) translate to working with student journalists?
EW: We sit by and we worry about what we are going to wear tomorrow, and who’s going to dinner with whom, when all these terrible things are happening in our world. I think journalists can make a huge difference, a major impact on people’s thoughts. If you teach kids the power of the press and give them skills, they can make a difference.
J.: You grew up in Los Angeles, the daughter of Orthodox immigrants from Russia. Do you read Jewish publications?
EW: I like the J. It always includes interesting things. There is always something going on. It’s exciting for me that the Bay Area Jewish community is so vibrant. I also read Jewish papers from Israel online.
J.: What’s your history in journalism?
EW: I was a journalist for about six years before coming to Paly in 1984. My first job was with the Los Angeles Times, and then I worked for the (now defunct) Berkeley Gazette. I also worked for Time as a Bay Area stringer. Then we [her husband is physics professor Stanley Wojcicki] moved to Stanford. There was no Internet, and I didn’t want to commute. Nothing happened here, so I decided to become a teacher of journalism instead.
“Talking with …” is a j. feature that focuses on local Jews who are doing things we find interesting.