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Esther Woj

Esther Wojcicki

2012, Interview Collaboration (Mauricio A. Rodríguez Hernández, Iliana Such and late (2014) Erin Willinger) in the Noble Spirit.

Wojcicki is a leading American educator, journalist, and mother. Leader in Blending Learning and the integration of technology into education, she is the founder of the Media Arts program at Palo Alto High School, where she built a journalism program from a small group of 20 students in 1984 to one of the largest in the nation including 600 students, five additional journalism teachers, and nine award-winning journalism publications. Wojcicki serves as Vice Chair of Creative Commons and has previously worked as a professional journalist for multiple publications and blogs regularly for The Huffington Post.

Esther has been intimately involved with Google and GoogleEdu since its inception. She was one of the leaders in setting up the Google Teacher Academy and remained a guiding force.

With two Honorary Doctorate Degrees - from Palo Alto University (2013) and Rhode Island School of Design (2016). She was California Teacher of the Year in 2002 by the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing; a recipient of the Gold Key by Columbia Scholastic Press Association in recognition of her outstanding devotion to the cause of the school press; a board member of Alliance for Excellent Education in Washington, DC, and on the Board of Newseum in DC; and a has been a consultant for the U.S Department of Education, Hewlett Foundation, Carnegie Foundation for Advancement of Teaching, Google, Silicon Valley Education Foundation and Time Magazine Education. 

Noble Magazine: Can you reveal a childhood experience that influenced your passion for education and journalism? When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?

Esther Wojcicki: I am the first child in the family, and I have a younger brother. While I was a good student, my brother was not. He had a very hard time learning to read and write. The teachers were impatient and told my parents he was slow and had some mental problems. It turned out he had dyslexia. However, in the 1950s, there was no such diagnosis. He was classified as “slow, " so he felt bad about himself. I remember the impact that the negative comments had on him. I knew he was smart but somehow couldn’t learn to read. I wanted to ensure that no child would be treated that way when I grew up, no matter his learning problems. My brother finally learned to read and graduated from college. His experience impacts how I teach and my philosophy that all kids can learn. It just takes some kids longer, but in the long run, it makes little difference. As a child, I noted inequities in the world and had compassion for the underdog. When I was a teenager, I decided to see if I could write for the local paper, and I succeeded in getting a job as an intern. I worked there for two years, wrote everything from news to sports, and learned most of what I know about journalism from a group of seasoned journalists. I then went to college at UC Berkeley, majoring in political science & English and working on a local newspaper to earn money. After my BA, I got a Master’s in Journalism from UC Berkeley to pursue a career in journalism and education.

Noble Magazine: What is a recent chief achievement in realizing the journalism program at Palo Alto High School? What are your challenges?

Esther Wojcicki: My most recent achievement is starting another fall magazine with the student newspaper, The Campanile. It is a 2030-page glossy magazine called the C Magazine, like the T Magazine of the New York Times. A major achievement for me, the school district, and the journalism program at Palo Alto High is the groundbreaking of the 25,000 sq. foot two-story Media Arts Center, which will house the journalism program. It will be completed in the fall of 2013. The journalism program continues to grow, and we now have about 600 students enrolled. It is now the largest scholastic journalism program in the U.S.

Noble Magazine: Do you feel that government should develop more reading programs?

Esther Wojcicki: There are plenty of reading programs already developed. The government could support more teachers who could help kids learn to read using existing programs. Many of those programs are online and free. The government should support more hands-on project-based publication programs for schools. In fact, the new Common Core State Standards support the teaching of nonfiction and publishing. More teachers should be doing that to engage their students. It would be good if students could have at least one hard copy publication per school, or schools should have websites that allow students to express their views if that is too expensive. That means that schools should respect students' First Amendment rights. Giving students the freedom to write about issues of importance to them motivates them to write, and in the process, they master writing skills.

Noble Magazine: Which US education programs do you believe must be used globally?

Esther Wojcicki: The US does not test as highly on the PISA test as other countries. But one thing you cannot test for is creativity, and the US students are the most creative in the world. The best way to encourage creativity is with project-based learning, like the journalism program I founded. All schools should have some media program encouraging students to publish their work online. US programs that should be used globally teach students journalism at the high school level and that teach math and reading at the elementary level. We have hundreds of programs online that do just that. They are all over the web. Some effective but not free programs are ClickN Read Phonics, TNT Reading, and Be Smart Kid. Here is one that is free and targets kids with disabilities: Benetech.

Noble Magazine: From a global perspective, what insights do you have on the state of education?

Esther Wojcicki: Worldwide, education is in trouble. Countries are struggling with the recession; the first item they cut on their budget is education. We all need to realize that students need to be able to THINK clearly in the future to be able to deal with all the unseen problems that will arise. We need to focus on education. Fortunately, today there are educational resources online for anyone with a smartphone or tablet, but access in the developing world is not always easy. If countries could support the development of internet technology in schools, it could dramatically improve learning. Education leaders must know that teacher training programs worldwide need updating to take advantage of the web resources. Many teachers still teach as though they were living in the last century because the teacher training programs train them that way. That makes their teaching irrelevant to the students.

If students could have daily access to broadband and computers in school and have teachers who know how to use them in education, that would dramatically improve education and make it more relevant. Policymakers should also encourage people to take advantage of the latest education innovation on the web, the full courses online called MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). This includes courses from many universities on websites like Coursera, Udacity, and edX. Google has recently developed CourseBuilder to enable anyone worldwide to build their courses. Google also has a custom search engine to help find Open Education Resources. Here is the search engine. If we could give everyone in the world access to these tools, it could change education and improve the lives of many adults. The web and Google have changed the way we get information today. We no longer need to go to school to get information. It is at your fingertips.

Noble Magazine: What is the biggest challenge and/or 'failure" that you have faced, overcome, and learned from?

Esther Wojcicki: My biggest challenge was dealing with the hostility I faced in the 1980s and 1990s when I used a new teaching method in my classes. Other teachers and administrators did not understand. My classes were seen as “out of control” because students worked collaboratively, not individually. The administration wanted all students to sit quietly, pay attention, take notes, and take tests. The idea was that the teacher was always in total control. There was even a controlled way to do group work that was heavily structured by the teacher, giving each student a defined role. I learned that changing the education space is extremely challenging, so most teachers follow the routine.

Recently the biggest challenge I am facing is teaching this collaborative philosophy to other schools and districts. The biggest block is the lack of trust in teachers embodied in the scripted teaching model. That model tells teachers what they should teach every day of the year and what tests should be given. Also, teachers don’t trust that they can be much more effective in the classroom and have an easier time teaching if they trust students and allow them to have self-directed learning. They don’t trust themselves to be able to do this. Self-directed learning means students are encouraged to collaborate on assignments and can have self-directed learning using the web. Students learn more by doing than by listening. Lectures are NOT effective, but it is very hard to change the traditions in teaching.

Noble Magazine: If you could have the ears of world leaders, what is the one message you would most want to tell them?  We have progressed much, but what more needs to be done?

Esther Wojcicki: Here is the message to world leaders: Education is the key to the future, and the way to improve it is to devote more resources to education. Education is the key to jobs and keeping the world economy running. Leaders ignore the importance of educating the next generation, so many unemployment problems exist. I would advise world leaders to invest in the country's technology infrastructure and ensure that schools and teachers access it. Also, teachers need training. Just because they can use it for personal reasons doesn’t mean they can use it in the classroom setting. An additional message to world leaders: We should shorten the time required for teacher training programs and make the programs more hands-on, more like intern-type training.

Noble Magazine: What advice would you give someone who wants to be a part of education programs but doesn't know how to make a difference?

Esther Wojcicki: Volunteer in a classroom to help teach kids to learn to read or do the math. Speak up or write blogs to support teachers' efforts. Support your local school. These are the first steps people can take. Then investigate what it takes to become a teacher in your country. People can volunteer without training, but many countries don’t have a program like this. Go to your local university or take some courses online for teacher training. Every state and every country is different, but they all have a program. Another way would be to work with Creative Commons to help promote the use of open education resources (OER) in schools to help teachers with differentiated instruction.

Noble Magazine: Can you reveal a childhood experience that influenced your passion for education and journalism? When did you know that you wanted to be a teacher?

Esther Wojcicki: I knew I wanted to be a teacher early on, maybe in elementary school. I had some teachers who punished students who finished their work early and who then talked in class. There was no differentiated instruction at that time. I said, “When I grow up, I will make the classroom a fun place to learn.” I have always wanted to change education. When I was 14 years old, I worked as an aide on a playground after school, and I found that all the kids loved coming to the program. The program grew from about five kids to over 30 kids. They had fun, and I loved it. I was just an aide, but I realized they would respond well if you treated kids respectfully and led them, not boss them around.

Noble Magazine: You travel so often and work tirelessly. What do you do to nourish and recharge yourself? How do you relax? How do you keep yourself centered so you can do your important work?

Esther Wojcicki: I travel often and work hard at changing the world of education. It is not easy, but it is inspiring. Working with my students and seeing how they grow and become happy, successful adults nourishes and keeps me going. When I hear from students about their lives and successes, that makes it all worthwhile. Many students were failing in school when they started with me and now are very successful adults in positions of responsibility. Making school relevant and giving them some freedom is what worked for them. As for relaxing, I actually relax on the computer and connect with many people. Most people don’t relax on the computer, but I do because it is a way to keep in touch and be entertained. I also run-walk every day for about an hour with my husband or friends, and on the weekend,  I spend lots of time with my family.

Noble Magazine: How do you divide your time between family and philanthropy activities?

Esther Wojcicki: I spend as much time as possible with my family. Fortunately, they all live close. Therefore I can visit them easily. My philanthropic activities overlap with my family’s goals. It is all about helping people live better lives through education. My daughters and their husbands also want to improve the world, each in their way. While we take some vacations, we devote most of our time to projects to help the world. For example, my daughter Anne has a company called 23andMe that uses DNA to help everyone understand the relationship between disease and DNA so people can take steps to prevent disease. Another daughter Janet is a professor of pediatric gastroenterology at UCSF Medical School in San Francisco, and she works to prevent childhood obesity worldwide and to prevent diabetes. My daughter Susan works at Google and is committed to the Google philosophy of organizing the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful.

Noble Magazine: Why do you think it is important for children to have journalism programs in schools?

Esther Wojcicki: Journalism is the number one project-based curriculum for the 21st century, and all children should be able to participate. It ties one hundred percent to the new Common Core State Standards, so districts should support it everywhere. First, it teaches kids to gather information from multiple sources and search online. Searching online is an important skill today; analyzing the results is key to knowing whether the information is credible. All kids should learn this skill. Second, it teaches kids how to organize their information and figure out what is the most important. They learn the inverted triangle of most important to least important information. While this may seem easy to you, it is extremely difficult for kids who have been sitting in classrooms where all they do is memorize and regurgitate on tests. It takes months of practice for kids to get it right finally, and when they do, it changes their entire way of thinking, not just for journalism but for life. Third, it teaches kids to write concisely. No one wants to read through unnecessary words. People just don’t read it. Kids need to learn to get to the point and write it concisely so that someone actually wants to read it.

It takes lots of practice, not just five-paragraph essays about literary characters in books they never read. That is why kids don’t learn to write;. They write about topics they don’t care about and books they never read. Fourth, journalism teaches kids how to write for the web if they publish on the web. All schools should publish on the web. We are a web-based culture. They learn many tech tools and feel comfortable writing opinion pieces and responding to blog posts. Fifth, it teaches kids to collaborate and work together as team players if they have a school website or newspaper. It gives them a sense of community, like a sports team gives kids a sense of belonging. Journalism teaches kids to share ideas, work together, discuss, and debate. Kids need three skills for the 21st century: critical thinking, collaboration, communication, and journalism provides training in all three.

Noble Magazine: Do you have particular educational methods in classes you can share? For example, Montessori?

Esther Wojcicki: My method is like the Montessori method, only for older kids. I believe that kids learn by doing, not by listening or watching someone else do;. They are motivated to learn because the learning involves real-life skills that are meaningful to them. My students are not learning about irrelevant topics;. In fact, they come up with their ideas for articles. Maria Montessori made a game out of things like tying your shoelaces and zipping up your jacket, which toddlers want to learn to make them feel independent. I focus on empowering my students, teaching them to use technology effectively, and communicating effectively on various platforms. For example, my students learn twenty vocabulary words per week. I have them make up sentences in class using the words. Then students collaboratively write a ‘vocabulary story’ using those words on Google Docs. The story must have a beginning, middle, and end and make sense. The words need to be used correctly. They love doing this because they love collaboration, the freedom to write about what they want and using computers. They love learning words this way, and it beats memorizing vocabulary.

Noble Magazine: What motivates kids to be full participants in group activities?

Esther Wojcicki: It is the same thing that motivates people of all ages, freedom, and respect. Kids starting as early as infants, want to do it “their way.” Everyone wants freedom and control in their lives, whether they are 2 or 92. Give students some control over their learning and allow them to collaborate with their friends, and you will get their full participation. The problem with the previous ‘group work’ was that the teacher picked the topic, picked the group members, and told each kid what they were doing in the group. How excited would you be if you went to a conference without freedom? Maybe years ago, when society was training people for factory jobs and following directions, that kind of education was necessary. But today, we want people who think.


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Noble Magazine: Do you think young generations use technology wisely, particularly related to education and the arts?

Esther Wojcicki: The young generation is incredibly creative regarding technology. As to whether they are wise, that is another story. The question is, what is wise? All the exciting new uses of technology come from them. In the arts, kids share videos, photos, and opinions. They are posting to Facebook, Tumblr, Pinterest, and more. Thousands of sites attract kids, and kids create many. Kids need some educational guidance, but if they are directed to open education sites like Khan Academy, they figure it out quickly. Teachers should have lists of recommended websites for each subject area.

Noble Magazine: How does a safe learning environment where kids are not afraid to fail help students succeed?

Esther Wojcicki: A safe learning environment is key to effective learning. Students must take risks and not be penalized or ridiculed to learn quickly and well. For example, in my classes, students do not get a grade on their essays until they have revised them repeatedly. Revision is built into the process; they are not motivated to improve if I grade them. But if there is no grade and they have to revise to get it, they are motivated to do the work. The motivation to cheat or copy an essay off the web is gone because students are not penalized for doing a bad job.

Noble Magazine: How do you see the future of print journalism?

Esther Wojcicki: I think there will always be a market for print journalism, but smaller. Staring at a computer screen, a tablet, or a Kindle is tiring for your eyes. While electronic devices are great most of the time, many of my students prefer hard-copy books, not textbooks. We as a nation are still headed toward an e-textbook revolution, but have they checked with the kids?

Noble Magazine: How did your initial process to create Google Teacher Academy originate? Could you provide us with business insight?

Esther Wojcicki: I worked at Google in 2005, and during that time, I was trying to find a way that Google tools could be used in the classroom by my students. As an English teacher, I saw that these tools would be very helpful, especially Google Docs, Presentations, and Spreadsheets (now all a part of Google Drive). So I picked some tools, including Gmail, Docs (which included Presentations and Spreadsheets), iGoogle, and Calendar. We put them together in a package for teachers and created lesson plans around them. Those were the original products in Google Apps for Education.

Then we decided it would be good to have teachers learn how to use those products effectively, which was the beginning of the Google Teacher Academy. I have always supported professional development for teachers because I see how important it is. Without professional development, change does not occur in the classroom. In fact, statistics show that only 20% of teachers will implement new ideas, no matter how good, without professional development or coaching. That was the idea behind the Google Teacher Academy. One day of professional development for teacher leaders who could return to their schools and share what they learned.

Policymakers should know that all the donated equipment to schools is never used if professional development is not part of the package. I saw myself in schools at the beginning of the 1990s when companies donated computers to schools, and they just sat in the back of the class and gathered dust. Ellen Moir with the New Teacher Center knows the importance of teacher professional development and coaching; her entire program is built around it.

Noble Magazine: Can you please tell us about a good personal experience defining Google Teacher Academy?

Esther Wojcicki: Google Teacher Academy started when I went around the country and pulled in groups of teachers in various cities to discuss their needs. During these discussions, I realized that the technology of the 1990s was not working. IT support was missing in many schools. Teachers did not know how to use the computers. Networking was weak, and there were no programs to really support teaching. Teachers were frustrated with what they perceived as an additional subject technology.

It was a good personal experience to see how appreciative and excited the teachers who came to the Google Teacher Academy were to learn about tools to help them in their teaching. That was the goal: make the lives of teachers easier and help students learn. They loved the tools and immediately saw how they could be useful in the classroom. They were so excited that they wanted to share it with their colleagues, which is what we hoped. Teachers as a group attract the most altruistic people I know. They go into the profession because they want to help kids and appreciate any support they get.

Noble Magazine: What is a ‘normal’ day in the life of Esther Wojcicki?

Esther Wojcicki: A normal day for me begins at 6 am when I get up, check my email, and do some posting. Next, I either work out with a trainer or go for a brisk walk with my husband in the hills. That is followed by meetings both on the phone, on Google Hangouts, and in person. In the mid-morning, I go to school and prepare for the day. I teach four hours daily but stay after school most days with many students. During production weeks (of the student newspaper), I stay until 9 pm. Production occurs every three weeks and lasts for four days. So on M, T, W, and Th of production week, I am at school until 9 pm. During that time, I facilitate, teach, coach, correct papers, plan for the next day, and have time for phone calls and emails. My students and I eat dinner together on those nights provided by wonderful parents. They take turns. I should mention that this class has 80 students, so it is an exciting place during production, especially at dinner time. Dinner is served right in my classroom (yes, that is true) and consists of foods like burritos, pizza, spaghetti, Chinese food, and Mexican food. It also includes salad and water (NO SODAS allowed). I try to teach my students good eating habits, including drinking water, not juice or soda. Also, sometimes my grandchildren come to production weeks and eat dinner with the students and me. As you can imagine, it is a bit chaotic, but lots of fun since my grandkids range in age from 1 to 12.

Noble Magazine: How would you like your legacy remembered?

Esther Wojcicki: An educational innovator who changed the way the world sees teaching and learning

1. Students learn by doing, not lecturing about doing

2. Trust and respect are an important part of the education process

3. Teachers need to see their role differently -- as facilitators as well as teachers

4. Creative Commons licensing is the gateway to innovation in the digital age

Iliana Such: Are you satisfied with all of your achievements until now? When are you happiest?

Noble Magazine: I am happy with my achievements so far, but the work continues;. We need to help teachers and students worldwide. I had no idea when I first started that I would be able to achieve any of my educational goals. In fact, originally, it looked like the system would destroy me. I am very lucky that I just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was able to positively impact the development of Google Apps for EDU, be part of Creative Commons and work to improve teaching worldwide. Teachers everywhere need to remember this fact: A good teacher impacts not only the lives of his/her students but also future generations. There is a famous saying by Henry Brooks Adams,

“A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Being a teacher in so many students' lives has been an honor and privilege.

The times I am happiest: #one is when I am with my children and grandchildren, and # two is when I am in the classroom with my students. I love being with my students, being part of their lives, and helping them be the best they can be. There is now a third. I also like helping young people in education startups whose ideas will help improve learning or improve the lives of teachers. As the child of a Russian Jewish immigrant who came with nothing, I grew up very poor in LA (my father was an artist), and I went to UC Berkeley on a scholarship. Without education, I would not have been able to accomplish any of my goals in life. I know the importance of education and want to help as many people as possible get an education and achieve their life dreams.

Noble Magazine: What is next for Esther Wojcicki and your greatest hope for the future?

Esther Wojcicki: Next is expanding my writing, blogging, and speaking. I also want to create some videos to help promote journalism as the curriculum for the digital age, Open Educational Resources (OER), and Creative Commons licenses.

Noble Magazine: In light of today's challenging economy, what would you tell your younger self if you were starting? If I were 22, I would go into policy work promoting using Creative Commons licensed materials (OER) and the open web. I might teach in Teach for America first and then use that experience to do policy work to change the present system so that there is more project-based learning, more self-directed learning, and more respect and independence for teachers.

Iliana Such: What does being NOBLE in the 21st century mean?

Esther Wojcicki: To be Noble in the 21st century is to be selfless and fearless, willing to take a risk to do something to improve the lives of people everywhere.

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