Podcast: Esther Wojcicki on Raising Successful People

Esther Wojcicki (@EstherWojcicki) started writing early. At 14 years old, she was hired by her local southern California newspaper and paid three cents a word. “I had a good teacher that encouraged me a lot,” said Wojcicki. It was her first inkling that journalism teaches skills for life.

While studying English literature and Political Science at Berkeley, she wrote for the local paper (you might see a pattern here).

After marrying a physicist with an NSF fellowship, she moved to Paris and studied French and International Relations at The Sorbonne.

Back in California, Wojcicki got a job teaching English at Palo Alto High in 1984. The journalism program was small and traditional. She bristled under the authoritarian teacher who ran the program and gradually gave kids more control. After some early success, she threw out the old curriculum and started her own, “I got rid of the textbook and brought in newspapers every day. We started writing for the real world,” said Wojcicki.

Thirty-five years later, Paly journalism is the best in the world with 700 students producing 10 world class publications. When you ask the kids why they participate, the number one attraction is empowerment and freedom. “We give every student an opportunity to express themselves in any medium,” explained Wojcicki.

Students learn the basics in a 20-week journalism class. Then they have the chance to join a highly respected publication and get published.

Most 10th graders show up waiting for someone to tell them what to do. “When they realize that they are in control, it gets exciting,” said Wojcicki, “they learn fast, and once they feel confident it spreads to their entire life– a mindset that all students should have.”

Power is dispersed as widely as possible among student teams beginning with five editors in chief. “These are regular kids who rise to become amazing,” said Wojcicki.

Like successful sports coaches, Wojcicki and six colleagues have created a flywheel of high expectations. It’s fast-paced and high-stress environment–the students do world-class work on a deadline.

“Students make a lot of mistakes,” said Wojcicki, “they may have to revise something 10 times, they learn that it is OK to fail, they develop grit to continue.”

Student editors give tough feedback to their peers because they are all there to produce a product they are proud of.

“There is a sense of comradery and community,” said Wojcicki, “we want to be the best we can be–and that feeling and those relationships follows them for life.”

Students can propose a new publication but they all have to be self-supporting. Students raise advertising revenue for each publication.

In 2015, Wojcicki published her trade secrets in Moonshots in Education. A moonshot classroom is a fundamental shift to give students more autonomy and agency in the classroom and entrusts them with greater ownership of their learning outcomes. The book has a great summary of the journalism program (also see Moonshots.org).

With the University of Oregon, Wojcicki created Journalistic Learning Initiative to give young people around the country powerful publication experiences. They are working with 10 schools and invite more to join.

The TRICK to Parenting

While honing her craft as an educator, Wojcicki was raising three daughters using the same principles. And that worked out pretty well too. Her daughters include Susan (CEO of YouTube), Janet, a Fulbright-winning anthropologist, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics and researcher, and Anne (co-founder of 23andMe). She has nine grandchildren.

In her new book, How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results, Wojcicki outlines the values of successful homes (or schools, programs, or companies): Trust, Respect, Independence, Collaboration, and Kindness (TRICK).

“Most important is trust,” said Wojcicki. Helicopter parenting is the opposite of trust, it just makes kids feel fearful on their own. “The main thing is helping them become independent,” added Wojcicki.

Kindness–that’s best learned by modeling. So is a sense of humor explained Wojcicki.

Set high expectations? Sure said Wojcicki, but give kids a chance to try again, teach iteration rather than punishment.

The Wojcicki girls benefited from living in Switzerland for a few years and traveling extensively. She also encouraged projects that the girls could work on together, building collaborative experiences

Wojcicki kids (and grandkids) all start working at the age of 15. “Children realize the world works when everyone has a job.” explained Wojcicki.

On issues like screen time, she suggests including kids in the process and mutually deciding on an amount of time. But, of course, no phones at the dinner table.

The same common sense principles that recognize human dignity and build agency and autonomy have worked as well at home and school for Wojcicki.

Key Takeaways:
[2:36] Where and how did Esther’s passion for journalism first begin?
[7:41] What was the state of student writing and journalism when Esther began as a teacher at Palo Alto High School in 1984?
[12:12] What does Esther believe to have been the key ingredients to the current success of Palo Alto and its journalism program.
[17:11] Esther summarizes the conditions that allow a world-class program such as the journalism program at Palo Alto to exist.
[23:17] Esther speaks about her first book, Moonshots in Education, and explains what the Moonshot Manifesto is all about!
[24:52] Esther speaks about the Journalistic Learning Initiative she created in collaboration with the University of Oregon.
[26:49] From her book, How to Raise Successful People, Esther explains her important acronym, T.R.I.C.K, that are the key values crucial to raising successful children, a successful classroom, and managing a successful company.
[38:02] Have Esther or her daughter’s developed useful tech management tools around screen time?
[40:54] Esther gives her recommendations on when and how to expose children to the world of work.
[42:45] When did Esther let her girls know that she was writing a book on how to raise successful people?

Mentioned in This Episode:
Mason Pashia — Getting Smart’s new Growth & Marketing Manager
How to Raise Successful People: Simple Lessons for Radical Results, by Esther Wojcicki
ASU GSV Summit
Palo Alto High School
Moonshots in Education: Blended Learning in the Classroom, by Esther Wojcicki, Lance Izumi, and Alicia Chang
Journalistic Learning Initiative

For more see

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Getting Smart Staff

The Getting Smart Staff believes in learning out loud and always being an advocate for things that we are excited about. As a result, we write a lot. Do you have a story we should cover? Email [email protected]

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