‘I teach to empower kids’

I teach to “empower kids to live satisfying and productive lives,”, writes Esther Wojcicki, a long-time English and journalism teacher at Palo Alto High School, on Learning Matters. “I am helping grow adults.”

(Teenagers) tend to be energetic, creative and humorous, and their drive for independence empowers them to think outside the box. I love to see what far-out ideas they dream up. Some of them have turned out to be real winners. Kids are amazing — if you encourage them.

I try to create a classroom atmosphere in which students are not afraid of making mistakes. In fact, they are encouraged to take intellectual risks and occasionally fail, because that is the way they learn best.

Paly journalism students develop their own story ideas, she writes. Student editors assign the stories and supervise the reporters.  She lets them “do the work themselves.”

I know this is true because Woj was my daughter’s journalism teacher. Working on the newspaper as a writer, news editor and editor was one of the most important experiences of Allison’s life. Woj lets students lead, even when she’s the one who’s going to catch the flak. She really does grow adults.

About Joanne


  1. Nice to see a post about a progressive-minded, results-only teacher, who works in a student-centered environment, built on student choice. Woj sounds like a wonderful teacher.

  2. Given how toxic the comments have gotten around here… I wonder what the reaction to this post would have been if you did not say this was your daughter’s journalism teacher… my guess is you would have had the usual suspects drone on and on about how stupid, naive, and destructive this teacher is… especially with phrases like “grow adults.” The usual peanut gallery here tends to immediately dismiss anything with even a whiff of progressiveness.

    • Jab,

      Of course you know that you also are in the peanut gallery and are also one of the usual suspects.

      Growing adults is not exclusively a progressive goal–not sure where you got that idea, but your bias is showing. The problem is that we have drastically different perspectives of what that looks like. Progressives tend to look at something like the Occupy Movement and say, “Look at those adults being empowered,” whereas conservatives tend to look at the Occupy Movement and say, “Look at those children refusing to grow up.”

    • Jab is 100% correct. Extrapolate that insight for our modern political culture (i.e. “no matter what the other side does they are wrong and evil and want to turn the US into a failing dictatorship” *) and you see what is truly worrisome in our country today.

      * Both Democrats and Republicans are guilty of this. It was called Bush Derangement Syndrome when Bush was president (it manifested itself most claerly in Truther nonsense) and it is present today with Obama as president (Birther nonsense and the weird need for critics of Obama’s policies to frequently end their critique with an accusation that he wants to end America or that he hates success or the militaary or somesuch). Peculiar times we live in…

  3. I try to create a classroom atmosphere in which students are not afraid of making mistakes. In fact, they are encouraged to take intellectual risks and occasionally fail, because that is the way they learn best.

    If more educators, progressive or otherwise, embraced this position it would be a great thing. Too many take the position that failure is always bad and either penalize it or ignore it. Both paths lead to bad results.

    • Ah, but NCLB doesn’t allow failure, remember that 100% goal coming up in a couple of years?

      • Mark Roulo says:

        NCLB says nothing about failure and making mistakes in the classroom. It just takes a dim view of failure at the *end*, where the test is trying (hopefully) to determine what the child learned.

        If failures along the way make for better test scores at the end of the year, NCLB makes no objection.

      • NCLB was a response to the problem of ignoring failure, especially among certain minority subgroups. Yes, it swung way too far in the other direction, but lawmaking is always given to extremes.

  4. GEORGE LARSON says:


    I think one reason people jump on progressive terminology is that many administrators who use these phrases don’t implemnt the concepts behind them. It is too freguently just fluff, puffery with no meaning or result.

    Another reason is many people on this site do not believe progressive ideas work outside of schools with bourgeois values

    • Cranberry says:

      Palo Alto demographics: http://www.clrsearch.com/Palo_Alto_Demographics/CA/.

      69% white, 22% asian. 83% married households. Median household income, $111,501, average household income, $168,195. 43% of the population 25 and older have completed a graduate degree.

      I’m sure she’s a wonderful teacher. She also has a student body which is easy to teach, if demographic factors have any correlation with student readiness.

      • Deirdre Mundy says:

        Cranberry–this was my thought too–it’s easier to give high school students this sort of autonomy if they’ve has a decent elementary education, can already read and write English, etc….

        • Cranberry says:

          There will be no need to encourage them to pursue a college degree. Most families will assume their children will attend college, and they will pursue that goal. If a child falls behind, private tutors will be arranged, although as43% of adults possess a graduate degree, probably in STEM fields given the setting, the family may not need to look beyond mom and dad for the knowledge.

          Most of the students will have been reading independently by the end of 1st grade. Their homes will have books, newspapers and magazines. They’ll even have arranged independent book groups with friends for fun. Their homes will have internet access. The parents will network to provide their children with opportunities such as internships or research opportunities.

          In other words, the school is not the only source of knowledge for these children. It’s much easier to “grow adults” when students have such strong support at home.

          It bothers me when people suppose the strongest teachers will be found in districts such as Palo Alto. It’s much easier to teach children who’ve been raised in homes which place the highest priority on education.

  5. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I have a general request. Listen up.

    Progressive educational theories =/= Progressive Political Theories

    They’re two completely separate notions that unfortunately share the same name.

    Please stop confusing them.

    • Mmm, no they do have common characteristics.

      Neither progressive educational theories nor progressive political theories admit the possibility of error and when they fail the proponents accept no responsibility for the espousal of bad ideas.

      • Neither conservative educational theories nor conservative political theories admit the possibility of error and when they fail the proponents accept no responsibility for the espousal of bad ideas.

        Gee… see how stupid that is? Talk about partisan hackery.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          Agreed. It’s too prevalent in politics and all the other debates that seem to turn into politics. It’s kind of cute in sports, where part of the fun is being unreasoningly tribal, but when you’re trying to get at the truth …

          I keep being reminded of two bumper stickers that are all around where I live:

          “I root for two teams, the Red Sox and whoever is playing the Yankees.”

          “Yankees suck.”

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        Why yes, they do have similarities.

        They’re both theories. And they have the same name.

        You can be insanely conservative and still be a Progressive Educational Theorist. And if our current EdSec is any indication, you can be insanely Progressive in your politics and still really be a traditionalist about education.

        All I’m saying is that Esther Wojciki might very well be a Pro-Life, Pro-Gun, Anti-Affirmative-Action, Bible-Swinging Federalist conservative, and it would make absolutely perfect sense for her to have said everything that’s quoted above, because Progressive Educational Theory isn’t political, except in the sense that it’s somewhat anti-authoritarian.

    • Good point.

      If one looks at how these two differing theories view the concepts of liberty and individual empowerment, it becomes immediately apparent that they’re not the same.

      Progressive education? Supports liberty and empowerment for kids.

      Progressive politics? Save for a few token issues*, militantly opposes liberty and empowerment for anyone.

      *Challenge for the progressives here… Show us one single example of progressive politics favoring liberty and empowerment besides abortion, LGBT issues, and occasionally drug and alcohol use.

      • Quincy,

        I am definitely calling you out here. You challenge progressives to explain themselves but then arbitrarily limit the subjects they can use to defend themselves (abortion, LGBT, drugs/alcohol). Why would you do that? Also, why would you focus on those issues to eliminate from the discussion? That’s a strange way to engage in open discussion, Quincy…

        • Swede, There’s a reason I want to hold political progressives accountable for issues other than the ones I cited. The logic I hear from them, sickeningly often, is that progressivism is pro-freedom on this or that token issue, therefore it’s generally so. Not true. The majority of the progressive platform is expressly anti-freedom and anti-empowerment, preferring instead the virtues of centralized planning. So, when talking about progressivism’s stance towards liberty and empowerment, I find it useful to exclude the token issues to get to the heart of the matter.

          • Shorter Qunicy:
            “Obama is a MarxistFascistCommunistSocialistKenyan who, if re-elected, will turn the country into the version in the movie Hunger Games!”

          • Nice try, jab, but this gripe on my part is pre-Obama by several decades. Try again.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            Kenyan =/= Keynesian

    • Also, bonus question for the progressives… Name one law the progressive side of the aisle has come up with increasing individual liberty and empowerment in the last decade.

  6. SuperSub says:

    Funny, I teach kids to get paid… and my reasoning ends in the same result. Heck, I’d even say I’m less prone to burn-out.

    • Former Teacher says:

      You are right. I think the idealists (myself included) are the ones who end up burning out in a huge way.

  7. I thought they were supposed to teach to educate kids?

  8. BadaBing says:

    As soon as I saw the word “empower,” I bailed, but I can’t help laughing every time I see such eduspeak. I’m bad that way.

    • J.D. Salinger says:

      They use “empower” in corporate speak as well. Companies are supposed to “empower” their employees. I worked at such a company. We were “empowered” to decide if we want to dress casual or formal.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    “empower” could be construed to mean equip with every practical tool available. In fact, if a kid was so equipped, and knew it, you’d hardly need to boost the self-esteem. You’d also have to talk about caution, because real-world experience is also necessary.
    IMO, if “empower” doesn’t include imparting practical abilities to do whatever it is–write a passable one-page description of a meeting, birth a baby, plan an invasion…oh, wait, that’s Heinlein–it’s not worth much. Indeed, telling a kid he’s a world conqueror while not teaching him to watch out for stobor….
    Well, anyway, I am suspicious of something which is not amenable to practical demonstration.

    • Sean Mays says:

      Richard: There’s always a stobor isn’t there? Remember, Heinlein proposed that the criterion to be allowed to vote was finding the root of a quadratic equation in the voting booth. Or serving a term …

  10. Richard Aubrey says:

    I served. The Q is long gone. You’ll recall that the Heinlein movie–worst movie ever made from a good book–elicited accusations of fascism, due to the franchise issue, also Doogie Howser wearing a pushed-up saucer cap like the krauts of evil memory. Also, it put a stick in the spokes of the “chickenhawk” argument.
    That said, “empower” is a word that gets my back hair up, possibly unfairly, because it and other fuzzy concepts have been used to excuse declining to teach anything useful in the real world. Which, imo, is not excusable as a crime of omission, but of commission, since it’s done deliberately.
    Possibly, in this case, it’s not all that fuzzy, but, for me, it requires to be proven.