Flickr: sskennel

How do we make schools more relevant to students? Teach them the skills they need in the real world, with tools they use every day. That’s exactly what Esther Wojcicki, a teacher of English and journalism at Palo Alto High School, is attempting to do with the recent launch of the website 21STCenturyLit. I interviewed Esther about the site, and how she hopes it will serve as a useful tool for both students and educators.

– How do you describe the mission for 21STcenturylit?

The mission of is three fold: it is to teach students how to be intelligent consumers of digital media, to teach students how to be skillful creators of digital media, and to teach students how to search intelligently.  We are living in an age when digital media and new digital tools are revolutionizing the world. Schools need to help student learn these skills, not block and censor the Internet.

– Why is this important right now?

We need to make school more relevant to the world we live in to combat the huge dropout problem we face. We also need to train kids to have the skills needed in the digital world. They need to know how to communicate using multiple media; they need to know how to read and write for the web; they need to know how to use social media for things other than checking on their friends.  Schools should be teaching this; businesses want to hire kids with these skills.

More than 40 percent of high school students nationwide drop out of school. While there are many reasons why kids drop out including economic factors, lack of reading skills, one of the main reasons cited is that they find school irrelevant, boring, and punitive.

We as a nation also have a critical need for trained IT workers that is not being met by our educational system. If students learn to use digital media in school and go on to computer science courses, it will provide good jobs for them and fill an important need for our country. Right now we are getting IT workers from other countries and kids are not getting the training they need in schools.

How do you think the work of a journalist mirrors that of a media consumer (newspaper reader, web user, etc.)?

The skills of a journalist mirror those of today’s media consumer which is why news literacy is a critical skill for all students. Like journalists, students today are gathering information; however, unlike journalists they do not have the skills for analyzing it, or writing about it. They should be taught these skills in school; we need to teach kids how to critically examine their research and make intelligent decisions about it. We need to teach them how to write for the web so they can feed empowered to participate. Many kids are connected to their Facebook account and their phone, but they do not comment on blogs or even write blogs.

How is this being received by the education community? How are you getting the word out, and how many educators so far have come upon this site?

Most teachers are interested in teaching these skills; however, many don’t feel that they have the necessary skills themselves. Teachers need time to learn these skills through professional development. They need time to learn how they can modify their teaching to incorporate the teaching of digital skills.

Esther Wojcicki

For example, English teachers need to teach students how to collaborate online with their writing projects. Just using the web to collaborate helps student understand what is happening in businesses. Instead of writing a paper, printing it out and turning it in, kids can turn the paper in online and peer-edit their work online before turning it in. One of the most widely used collaboration tools is Google Docs, a free online word processing program. In using this method, students learn more than just how to write a paper; they learn how to use digital tools.

Students should also learn to blog.  At the moment, many schools block blogging because they are worried kids will access ‘inappropriate’ blogs. How is this teaching kids about the real world?

Students can be asked, for example, to do research on health care in America and compare it to health care in other parts of the world. Just doing the research is exciting for students but most of them do not know how to analyze their results. They need to be taught. For example, who created the website, what are their political objectives, how objective is the information. Administrators need to help teachers who in turn help students learn how to analyze their result, not block the web. In too many schools today, the web is blocked!! Yes, blocked. Schools use special censoring services that ensure that kids will never find anything ‘objectionable.’ How is this teaching about the real world when they are never allowed to access the real world, except at home. Schools are making themselves irrelevant by failing to teach kids about the world we live in.

– What’s your hope with this site?

I’m hoping that this site will provide teachers several lesson plans that will help them teach students a) how to search effectively b) how to analyze their search results c) how to differentiate between fact and opinion d) how to write for the web. I have lesson plans to teach how to write a personality feature, how to write a news story, how to write reviews of movies, games, books, websites. There are also lesson plans of how to understand copyright and how to use Creative Commons licenses to modify copyright so students can learn to share and remix legally.

How are educators accessing these kinds of excellent resources online? Do you believe there’s a good system in place to let them know, or do you think it’s still quite fragmented and decentralized?

The system is still quite fragmented and decentralized. There are many sites and many entrepreneurs trying to create materials for teachers but one of the main problems is finding these resources. If the user doesn’t know the key words, then they won’t find them.

What solution do you think might work for creating a central repository of sorts?

I am working with a group of universities who are looking at ways to optimize the finding of Open Educational Resources. Hopefully, this will happen in 2011 but until then teachers need to know the address of the site or the key words to find the materials.

Why Every Student Should Learn the Skills of a Journalist 10 January,2011Tina Barseghian
  • Alysegamble

    I never knew this I better tell my future children to go to college!

  • BonnieBGood

    I’m impressed by the overall ideas here but her statistic about national high school dropout rate sounds too high; I haven’t been able to find a recent source on national dropout rates that puts the total so high but here’s one report I did find (See below.) The rate is that high or higher for some subgroups or some states or districts, but not the overall national rate. Not to suggest that it’s okay, because even 75% is way too high.
    June 2, 2010, 7:12 PM
    Graduation Rates, by State and Race
    By Catherine Rampell
    Across United States public schools, just 74.9 percent of students who were freshmen in the fall of 2004 graduated from high school on time in 2008, according to a report from the National Center for Education Statistics.
    So now…… about the skills of a journalist………. (smile)

    • Anonymous

      The dropout numbers do vary. I asked Esther to respond, and here’s what she says:

      From Esther:
      This is from Education Week for 2006

      “According to the EPE Research Center’s latest analysis of high school completion for Diplomas Count, the national graduation rate stands at 68.8 percent for the class of 2007, the most recent year for which data are available. That represents a slight drop, four-tenths of a percentage point, from 69.2 percent for the previous high school class; it also marks the second consecutive year of declines in the national graduation rate, following a decade of mostly solid improvement.

      The latest decrease is considerably smaller than the nearly point-and-a-half drop from 2005 to 2006. Even so, a 0.4-percentage-point decline in the graduation rate means diplomas for 11,000 fewer students nationally in the class of 2007, compared with the previous year.

      Perhaps more troubling are the persistent graduation gaps between students in different demographic groups.

      Although more than three-quarters of white and Asian students in the United States earn diplomas, high school outcomes are much worse for others. Among Latinos, 56 percent successfully finish high school, while 54 percent of African-Americans and 51 percent of Native Americans graduate. On average, only two-thirds of male students earn a diploma, a rate 7 percentage points lower than the rate for female students. Rates of high school completion for males from historically disadvantaged minority groups consistently fall at or below the 50 percent mark.

      Across all urban school systems, the data show six out of every 10 students from the class of 2007 graduating. In districts characterized by high levels of racial or socioeconomic segregation and those serving communities with high rates of poverty, graduation rates typically range from 55 percent to 60 percent. At the other end of the spectrum, the EPE Research Center identifies 21 “urban overachievers,” big-city districts where the actual 2007 graduation rate is 10 percentage points higher than expected based on their circumstances.”

      Here are statistics from Newsweek. It is perhaps more accurate to say that about 7000 kids per day drop out of high school nationwide since the statistics vary for different ethnicities and between cities. The average is about 40% but it varies from 70% in some areas to 10% in others.

      • BonnieBGood

        Gary Ravani wrote this at Thoughts on Public Education:

        A 2010 RAND Corp. study indicates that the national high school graduation rate is above 80 percent. Rates run around 85 percent for Asians and Whites and 70-80 percent for Hispanics and African Americans. The U.S. Census Bureau delivered a press release in June of 2004 with the title: “High School Graduation Rates Reach All Time High: Non-Hispanic White and Black Graduates at Record Levels.” Black graduation rates increased by 10 percentage points from 1993 to 2003. Hispanics’ rates rose by 11 percent in the same period. College graduation rates had also reached another historic high point. This has been topped by the latest report from the U.S. Department of Labor (April 2010) stating that the highest percentage ever of new high school graduates were enrolled in colleges last fall.

  • Steve Bowell

    As an ex-newspaperman I’ve been saying for years that all students should be to some extent students of journalism. Not only in the way described in this piece, but taught how the media actually operate. After all, every civics course worthy of the name has taught the difference between the ideal and the reality of how legislatures operate — the lobbying, the logrolling — and it should be the same for the media, which are just an important part of the democratic system. Just how true IS the radicals’ condemnation of the established media as the handmaidens of Big Business? This should be a topic of duscussion in every high school.

    Steve Bowell

  • Anonymous

    This is nothing groundbreaking. In 1988, the American Library Association, along with the Association for Educational Communications and Technology produced a document titled Information Power. In it, the express mission of the school library program is to “ensure that students and staff are effective users of information and ideas”. A more recent version of that mission is “ensure that students are effective users and producers of ideas and information”.

    Wojcicki is parroting arguments made by school librarians for many years.

    • Anonymous

      I would argue that Wojcicki is doing much more than parroting a document — she’s actually providing accessible, interactive tools for educators and students to use and to learn with rather than just providing a document to read. I

      • ARK

        As a librarian, I had a similar response, and am not surprised to see another librarian make this kind of comment. Nor am I surprised that the librarian put it in straightforward terms that others find off putting and easy to dismiss. However, the fact remains that librarians teach information literacy and like others in the education field have produced numerous tools (pathfinders, lesson plans, web pages, videos, etc) that have demonstrable success in creating critical information consumers. In fact, many journalists rely on librarians to assist them in their research. Also, many legislators and government employees (who write legislation, regulatory documents, grants, etc) rely on librarians to provide accurate information for those programs. I would certainly consider librarians, journalists, English teachers as members of the same team.

  • Dan

    If schools do no more than point out to today’s students that datelines are essential to the interpretation of online information, they’ll change the world. Undated information is epidemic on the Web — most obviously on YouTube — and many people who should know better pass it on without a second thought. I find this trend extremely alarming and hope it turns out to be short-lived.

  • Esther is teaching her students how to research and analyze information while learning how to communicate in different ways through digital media, all of which are valuable skills in the work world. It’s great to see an educator who is making learning relevant, interesting and fun.

  • Aimeegiles

    The things that Esther pointed out about the techniques to get students more intrested, are true. Many kids drop out because of the lack of reading skills, ecnomic problems, and the biggest reason of them all, becaue they find school irrelevant, boring,and punitive. Using the media to get them more intrested is a good way to get them started. Some schools however, dont use the media at their schools because the students use it unwisely.

  • Keyvan Cgie

    I really appreciate your goals.
    I am the Executive Director of a non profit Educational organization called Center for Global Integrated Education and would like to explore with you possibilities of collaboration with you. We seem to have many common goals. Please visit me at

  • We need more teachers like Esther Wojcicki. Learning how to navigate the web intelligently is a vital skill for an individual but also for a democracy. I am a co-founder of the 501(c)(3) educational non-profit Connecticut-based organization Youth Journalism International ( and ( which has been teaching the next generation of journalists since 1994. Youth Journalism International connects teen writers, artists and photographers with peers around the globe, teaches journalism, fosters cross-cultural understanding, and promotes and defends a free youth press.
    We’re growing by leaps and bounds with hundreds of students literally around the world, but we can’t do it all. We greatly appreciate teachers like Esther Wojcicki who support and teach students critical thinking, analysis and clear writing. Each year, we honor the best journalism teachers in our international excellence in journalism contest. We’re nearly ready to accept applications for this year’s contest, and I hope some of her students consider nominating her in the Journalism Educator of the Year category.

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