(Cross-posted on the Google Student Blog.)

Editor's note: One of the main discussion points of Education on Air, the free online conference from Google on May 8th-9th, was how we can empower students in their learning. Our guest author today, Coby Parker, is one of the students who shared views as part of the student empowerment panel at the conference. Coby and his classmate and co-author Claire Liu are the Editors-in-Chief of the Campanile, the student-created, award-winning publication at Palo Alto High School. Today they share more insights about how the journalism program at his school, led by educator Esther Wojcicki, motivates students. We hope this provides ideas for teachers as they head into summer and next year.

One of the most vital pieces of an education is student empowerment. Here at Palo Alto High School, students are given the opportunity to take complete control over their academic and creative journey through the journalism program Esther Wojcicki (or “Woj”) has created.

The journalism program and publications that Woj has built over the last 30 years are incredibly appealing to our student body, as demonstrated by the hundreds of kids who choose to enroll in “Beginning Journalism” each year. High school is a challenging time – young people are faced with the obstacles presented by academic stress, extracurricular commitments and changing social norms. For me, it was difficult to find something to spend my time doing that provided both intellectual stimulation and creative escape.

Joining Paul Kandell’s “Beginning Journalism” class sophomore year, and then enrolling in The Campanile, a school newspaper that Woj advises, has granted me the space to grow my academic independence and leadership ability. Our entire publication is headed by students only. Student editors like me lead story ideas, and staff writers pick and choose the pieces they feel passionate about writing. There are no limitations on story ideas – as long as a proposal is relevant, we give it the green light.
If you like what you see in this highlight reel for the Education on Air student empowerment panel, check out the full session.

After students submit first drafts, peers make edits on Google Drive, suggesting changes, marking grammar and AP style errors, and more. When “production” begins, the entire staff stays on campus in the Media Arts Center until 9 P.M. each night to design the tangible, paper product. The entire process is run by students, meaning it is the high schoolers alone who create the complex and sophisticated end product. We even sell advertisements to pay the bills. If a student needs help, he or she asks a high school peer – not Woj. Woj leads very much from behind – an approach that may be challenging for many educators, but one that is truly beneficial to the strengthening of student initiative.

Essentially, the only time Woj intervenes is if she has a specific design suggestion, brief lesson, or if a specific story may contain libel or is unethical in some way – this happens pretty infrequently. In my three years on The Campanile, Woj has never forced us to do or publish anything we did not want to. Her approach provides students the room to take on big projects and develop a self-confidence and desire to test boundaries, both personal and societal.

My colleague Claire Liu, another Editor-in-Chief, explained the impact the course has had for her. “As a staff writer, I have pursued a range of stories, standard and provocative. Whether I was documenting a sports game, addressing race relations or discussing gender roles and sexuality through the paper, I have felt Woj’s subtle but ever present support. In this rare, fast-paced and invigorating environment, we are allowed to fail, and encouraged to take risks and challenge the norm, all while being supported by a teacher who consistently has our back (even when she’s feeling a bit hesitant, and even if we mess up big time!). Students join The Campanile expecting to learn how to design a newspaper page and write articles. They gain not only those things, but an entire toolbox of powerful character traits and skills that will last them a lifetime.”

In psychology class I recently learned the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Generally in the education system, students work hard to get good grades and please their teachers – extrinsic motivation. In The Campanile, the motivation is more intrinsic. The threshold to get an A is the bare minimum, and anything above and beyond that has to come from the individual student’s efforts. The reward is much more basic than an A on the report card; it’s being able to hold a newspaper and point to the real impact that he or she made.

Our advisor, Woj, truly plays the role of advisor and not teacher. She’s there for us when we need her, but when we don’t, she doesn’t impose on us or make us do anything we don’t want to. In the end, we are responsible for our actions, the dime stops with us. I hope more schools can implement programs like The Campanile and empower students to take charge of their own education.

If you’re interested in learning more about Esther Wojcicki’s approach to teaching check out this interview with her in which she talks about her recent book “Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom” or read more on her website.