In 1984, Room 26 of the Tower Building painted a largely uninspired picture: 19 student journalists working in opposite of a frenzied news environment The Campanile was hardly the quintessence of high school journalism.
Enter Esther Wojcicki, affectionately known as Woj, who transformed this program during her 38 years as a teacher and journalism adviser.
Under Wojcicki’s direction, the Paly journalism program grew into a series of award-winning publications and one of the largest high school media arts programs in the country.
Wojcicki announced her plans to retire in April, a decision she said was motivated by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, students who have studied under Wojcicki say her impact on the program will last forever.
“When you join the program, you kind of just assume some greater force,” Lisa Brennan-Jobs, former Campanile Editor-in-Chief, said. “But as I’ve gotten older, it feels like a lot of cool things are just because one person really wanted them to be cool and kept on trying to make it that way.”
History of Wojcicki
When Wojcicki began working at Paly, the journalism program didn’t attract many students, she said.
“The program was structured like a typical class, so that I was always in charge, and the students always did what I wanted them to do,” Wojcicki said. “It didn’t really engage the students. It was boring and that’s why there were only 19 kids. No one wanted to sign up for it.”
This lack of student voice led Wojcicki to implement a new dynamic within the publication, which granted more authority to the staff rather than the instructor. The diminution of her role allowed her students the freedom to produce their desired content for the first time.
“I got into some trouble with the administration doing that,” Wojcicki said. “They didn’t like that idea at all, so I basically had to get students to help me.”
According to current Campanile co-adviser Rodney Satterthwaite, Wojcicki helped establish the precedent of student independence in the Paly journalism program.
“One of the things she is a huge proponent of was student voice and student choice and making the program a student program,” Satterthwaite said. “She’s pushed that to the degree that, at a lot of schools, you don’t see … I know Woj has gone to bat numerous times for students and against administrators.”
Over the course of her first two years at Paly, Wojcicki said she worked to gradually give her student journalists more independence. From applying for a California grant which allowed her to acquire six Macintosh computers in 1987 to modernizing and streamlining design using new software, Wojcicki worked with her students to expand the publication, both in quality and popularity.
“Word got out around the school that the teacher let the students have a lot of control,” Wojcicki said. “And that I was willing to allow them to write about things they wanted to write about and do things they wanted to do.”
According to Economist’s China affairs editor Gady Epstein, who graduated from Paly in 1990 and was a Senior Editor on The Campanile, Wojcicki was able to completely redesign the publication from its conventional class format into one that allowed for student control.
“You have a chance when you’re running a high school journalism program to shape it completely, and she did that,” Epstein said. “I think without her, there is no Campanile, not as we know it.”
As The Campanile grew in popularity, garnering attention from April Fools’ editions and late production nights full of pizza, Wojcicki said by 1999, 100 students had signed up for the class. Given the overwhelming interest, she took 25 students from The Campanile and established a new student publication: Verde Magazine.
“The administration also said to me, ‘High schools don’t publish magazines. I never heard of anything like this. What kind of crazy idea is this,’ never listening of course,” Wojcicki said. “And I said, ‘Yeah, we’re publishing a magazine. Don’t worry. I’ll find a publisher.’”
Verde Magazine won a Gold Crown from the Columbia Scholastic Press Association that year, becoming the first magazine in California to do so. This was the beginning of a series of publications Wojcicki would help start, in spite of numerous objections from administration.
“She’s never really taken no for an answer,” Satterthwaite said. “If she wanted a new program, she would just do it.”
Wojcicki said she then helped hire Paul Kandell, who currently advises Verde, the online publication The Paly Voice and the journalism Incubator class. Kandell then became the adviser of Verde.
“It was beyond just controlling the product and the process,” Kandell said. “She just always loved being with young people, and they could feel it.”
Following the success of Verde, Wojcicki said she continued to work to broaden the journalism program, including an online program, the Paly Voice, and then Viking Magazine, a sports feature magazine, in 2006.
Student enrollment in the journalism program continued to grow, prompting Wojcicki to start another magazine despite protests from administration.
“The administration told me, ‘You’ve got so many publications. You’ve got so many magazines. What do you mean you need another magazine,’” Wojcicki said.
Wojcicki said administrators refused to allow another publication, so she decided to create a new section of The Campanile and which would produce Campanile Magazine, now dubbed C Magazine, the newest publication that Wojcicki helped initiate.
“Her fingerprints are all over everything,” former Campanile Editor-in-Chief Owen Dulik said. “I don’t think any of it would be possible without her.”
Throughout her 38 years as a Campanile adviser, Wojcicki said she has always tried to maintain the mindset of students first, fostering independence, freedom and trust in them, allowing them to speak their mind and learn leadership skills as well.
“What’s unique about her is that she trusts her students to use their own judgment, that she gives her students the power to make decisions, to lead, to think for themselves,” Epstein said.
Even at the beginning of her career at Paly, under pressure to be like other teachers in a time when giving students control of their learning was a radical idea, Wojcicki said she still acted on her faith in students, transforming the definition of a classroom and pushing the boundaries of what it meant to be a teacher.
“She let us, as students, run the show,” Epstein said. “It wasn’t a common experience in education back when I was a kid … There were some teachers that had different aspects of that when I was growing up, but Woj was pushing the envelope on that much more so than any other teacher I’ve ever had.”
According to her students, Wojcicki encourages her students to take advantage of this independence and create their own unique experiences on the paper.
“She likes to foster independence and creativity and get students to own their own projects and own their own learning and make it fun,” Brennan-Jobs said.
Sina Farzaneh, the CEO of Pullpath, who graduated from Paly in 1999 and was a Sports Editor on The Campanile, said he valued the respect and room to experiment Wojcicki gave her students.
“She didn’t stand in front of the classroom lecturing at us, she instead set the rules and then let us play … She let us drive our own learning,” Farzaneh said. “Giving us enough framework and letting us play, drawing within the lines. And if we strayed from the lines, not making a big deal out of it.”
Wojcicki said her willingness to fight for students and give them independence is shaped by her experiences growing up.
When she was 10, Woj’s youngest brother accidentally ingested a large amount of aspirin. Her mother, an immigrant who didn’t speak much English, called the doctor, who told her to put her son to bed. He soon became violently ill, and after going from hospital to hospital but being denied medical services because she couldn’t pay for them, her mother finally found a place that would help her brother. But by that time it was too late. Her brother died before he could be treated by doctors.
“This had a really tragic impact on me because … here were some really smart people, doctors with degrees, and they made all these ridiculous statements and mistakes and this child died because they didn’t listen,” Wojcicki said. “So as a 10-year-old I decided … I was never going to listen to authority again unless it made sense.”
Wojcicki said this experience as well as her time as a teenager, where she felt like adults never listened to her, made her even more determined to provide a voice for young people. For this reason, Wojcicki said she loves working with students, especially those on The Campanile.
“I love the fact that Campy students have a sense of creativity and adventure and wonder,” Wojcicki said. “There’s nothing like working with teenagers. Working with adults, they’re so reserved. At Campy they tell you exactly what they think … It’s refreshing to be with young people that have great interesting and innovative ideas and they’re willing to share them.”
According to Wojcicki’s daughter Janet Wojcicki, associate professor at the University of California, San Francisco, Esther believes students are the future.
“Nothing excites her more than young people because they have so much potential and the ability to really change the world and do a lot of good out there,” Janet said.
Wojcicki said the idea that young people are smart enough to make decisions on their own turned into her student-focused philosophy.
Today, Wojcicki brings this message to the international stage, traveling around the world to share her educational philosophy.
In 2014 and 2019, Wojcicki published her books “Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom” and “How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results,” respectively.
Additionally, over the past winter alone, Wojcicki has spoken at the TAL Education Summit in Beijing, the European Union in Brussels, Tech de Monterrey in Monterrey, Mexico and France Digital Day in Paris with President Emmanuel Macron.
“The fact that the district gives her the time to go be an ambassador outside of school is cool because people who don’t teach, I don’t think, understand what teaching is all about,” Satterthwaite said. “She makes it so that people outside of education see that good teachers work hard, good teachers care about their kids … students are smart, high school students aren’t these idiots they’re portrayed to be in teenage movies and TV shows.”
Former Campanile Editor-in-Chief Ashley Zhang, who graduated from Paly in 2018, said it was Wojcicki who first convinced her to join the publication, a decision that Zhang has been grateful for since.
“I was deciding between Campy and Verde and my beginning journalism teacher said I should just talk to the advisors, and I talked to Woj very briefly for five minutes, but she was so enthusiastic about Campy and so I could tell she cared so much about the students in the program,” Zhang said. “That’s why I chose it.”
In The Campanile, by giving students the power to take the lead and creating exciting memories for them, Wojcicki fostered a fun, motivating environment that Brennan-Jobs said she continues to seek.
“I think when you find something really fun that feels delightful, you’re always trying to find that again,” Brennan-Jobs said. “And there was just a fun sense of being in a team and I enjoyed being in a leadership role, and I enjoyed the feeling of kind of us against the world and late night drives to the press, and it was just so much fun that in everything I do, I look to recreate that fun again.”
Former Editor-in-Chief Stephanie Cong, who graduated from Paly in 2016, echoed this sentiment and said Wojcicki creates an environment that influences students’ perspectives.
“She’s been able to design the journalism program in a way that lets you know that you’re really valued,” Cong said. “She puts you in a position where you really get to grow and think about the world in different ways.”
According to Wojcicki’s daughter Anne Wojcicki, the co-founder and CEO of 23andMe, Esther thinks of her students as an extension of her family, and she encouraged the same unyielding passion and wide perspective when raising her own children.
“She allowed us to follow our passions and she taught us to question things,” Anne said. “It’s a really different look at the world when you realize you can shape it. She empowered all of us to say the world can be what you want it to be.”
As for the future of The Campanile, Wojcicki said it is important to uphold the autonomy of students, something she said makes the program groundbreaking in the first place.
“Always remember the students and the students have a voice and be respected,” Wojcicki said. “Trust the students, respect their ideas, give them independence, allow them to collaborate and treat them with kindness.”
And retirement does not mark the end of Wojcicki’s mission to continue to empower students at both Paly and beyond. Wojcicki said she plans to keep nurturing Paly journalism by serving as an adviser to the district and continue her research and teaching at Stanford MediaX, an affiliate program of Stanford’s Human Sciences and Technologies Advanced Research Institute.
She also said she plans to continue her educational legacy by starting a company, WojWay, with former Campanile students.
“One of the goals is to promote student self-directed learning at all grade levels starting with preschool and going through college,” Wojcicki said.
Regardless of her retirement, Wojcicki said she always wants to encourage the philosophy of allowing students to have both independence and autonomy.
“My goal has always been students first,” Wojcicki said. “(I have a) history of giving students a voice, allowing them to speak out about situations that matter to them. That’s what I’ve been pushing for years. That’s what I’m known for. That’s what I want to make sure always happens.”
Editor’s Note: Driven by a firm belief in the power of what young voices can do, Woj has cultivated a nationally recognized journalism program led by teenagers. From uncovering district scandals to enacting direct change in the school system, Woj’s students have been empowered to go beyond the boundaries of what students are allowed to do — leading them to become more confident in their pursuits. From the current staff, and the countless students she has inspired over the years, we want to express our deepest thanks for changing the way we see our place in the world of journalism.