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Empowering Students Key to Education Reform

Esther Wojcicki, founder of the Palo Alto High School media arts programs and a MacArthur Foundation Research Fellow, presented at SOE in March.

By Jim Campbell

Esther Wojcicki, founder of the Palo Alto High School media arts programs and a MacArthur Foundation Research Fellow, described herself in a recent talk at the School of Education as a classroom teacher who was tired of not being effective.

A journalism class instructor, she found she could be more successful when she allowed her students to think for themselves and let them decide the type of projects they wanted to work on. “My goal was to empower students to be whatever they wanted to be.”

Wojcicki, who began teaching in 1984, said schools operate much the same they did a century ago. Teachers lecture and students are tested on materials presented in class.

“We’re losing many students because education is not relevant to their lives,” she said. “If we’re going to change things to make education more meaningful, we need a concerted national effort similar to what it took to put a man on the moon in the 1960’s.”

Initially, she followed the manual and did everything the school administration asked of her. By the end of the year, the first-year teacher realized her students were miserable and not engaged. Attendance was poor and they were not participating in class. She contemplated quitting. After discussing her future with her husband, a Stanford physics professor, he suggested that she didn’t have anything to lose if she challenged the system. She decided to stay.

A “revolutionary” change in her thinking occurred the following year when a state grant enabled her to buy Macintosh computers for her classroom. Wojcicki had no clue how to use them. Eventually, after a few weeks of not faking it very well, she admitted this to her students and asked for their help.

“Not only did they figure out how to use them, they set up their own network. The ability to let students decide what projects they wanted to work on was the beginning of my blended-learning model.”

Elements of the model include students working in small groups, expanded use of technology and teachers serving as coaches. There is little lecturing and instructors use mastery learning where students keep working on content until they understand it. The only grade given is an A when a subject is mastered. This system empowers both the individual student and the other students in the classroom whose expertise is demonstrated as they help one another.

Last year she published her ideas in the book, Moonshot in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom. The model is based on five characteristics: trust, respect, independence, collaboration and kindness. Each is important, she said, to the overall culture of the classroom.

“The first action a teacher needs to take when school starts is to set up this culture. It’s also important to understand that the teacher is not the only expert in the room. Students can know more than the teacher about some aspects of what they will be doing together.”

In the past two years, eight teenagers have died by suicide in the Palo Alto district. Located in the heart of Silicon Valley, the city is home to some of the nation’s most competitive public schools. A former California Teacher of the Year, Wojcicki is critical of the emphasis on testing.

“The over-testing is contributing to a suicide epidemic. There’s a lot of pressure for students to do well, to get into the best colleges.” 

The Palo Alto program has become the largest media program in the nation, with 600-plus students and a new 25,000-square-foot media arts center. Students produce six publications, including a daily newspaper and two feature magazines. They also operate a TV studio and produce live broadcasts of the Palo Alto City Council.

Palo Alto High School is an affluent public school with high parent involvement, but Wojcicki believes this shift in teacher preparation can be scaled to other schools in the nation. She thinks all children can learn better and be more engaged in their own education if more teachers, administrators and school districts embraced this movement, which she has pushed for more than three decades.

“My district is finally offering teacher prep training using this model this summer. It takes a little naivete and a lot of conviction to change our education system, but we know we can do better for our students. That’s what’s most important.”

Student Stories

Doctoral Candidate’s Students Use Drone Technology to Solve Parking Problem

By Jim Campbell

When Ruston High School in Louisiana was experiencing severe parking congestion due to increasing enrollment, the school principal asked Dustin Whitlock, who teaches in the New Tech@Ruston project, if his students could find ways to solve the problem.  

Using the latest drone technology, mapping skills from their geometry and geography classes, and what they learned about zoning and parking regulations, the students presented detailed recommendations to the school administration. Based largely on the work of Whitlock’s students, a new parking plan will be implemented this summer.

Whitlock, a School of Education doctoral (EdD) student, was named last fall the 2015 Louisiana Secondary Teacher of the Year by the Louisiana Association of Computer Using Educators. The award is given to educators for outstanding work in utilizing technology, promoting positive digital citizenship, and being a leader in the implementation of new technologies for the benefit of student learning.

“The recognition for our achievements here at New Tech is a tremendous honor, and it will encourage us to continue to push forward in teaching and learning about new technology,” said Whitlock.

Whitlock teaches social studies and English at New Tech, a project-based learning program that offers high school students the opportunity to learn by working on real-world problems that relate to their everyday lives. The program stresses technology use, collaboration, oral communications and content and curriculum knowledge. 

Whitlock’s students used drone technology to take aerial photographs of the parking spots during the day in order to see where students park and where parking could be rearranged to allow more students to park legally. They collaborated with city and state officials to make sure they were meeting all zoning and parking requirements.

“I was so proud of my students for the work they did on the parking problem,” he said. “They presented an excellent plan to the school administration.”

Lincoln Parish School coordinator Cathi Cox-Boniol credits Whitlock with opening doors for students. “I think about the project using drones to solve a parking problem at the school. They were using cutting-edge technology while working on an authentic problem that required them to exercise their 21st-century skills,” she said. “His is a visionary process, and it is really helping propel students into exciting and challenging arenas that have the potential for being real game-changers for them.”

Sophomore Gabriel Allen said: “Mr. Whitlock is always challenging us. That’s why I’m glad to have him as a teacher. He pushes us and challenges in ways we weren’t aware of.”

Whitlock is in the second year of the EdD program. His doctoral research project is focused on teacher attrition in project-based learning. He hopes to do more professional development on its benefits for new teachers.

Upcoming  Events  & Conferences

SOE Reception at the 2016 American Education Research Association (AERA) Annual Meeting

Please join SOE faculty, students and alumni for a welcome reception at the American Research Association annual meeting in Washington DC on Friday, April 8. RSVP here



Mariale Hardiman to present at Learning & The Brain 2016 Conference

Interim dean Mariale Hardiman, EdD, introduced keynote speaker, Sir Ken Robinson, PhD, at the conference held in Orlando, Fla.

Want to connect with students, faculty and alumni while improving the community? Volunteer for Johns Hopkins In Action on May 7th.

Join JHU faculty, staff, alumni, students and friends as we work to improve the Baltimore/D.C. community during a day of service on Saturday, May 7. Johns Hopkins in Action is a community-service program designed to engage affiliates of Johns Hopkins in projects that make an immediate impact on the communities in which we live. JHiA partners with local community organizations to provide a service opportunity that aligns with the priorities of the Rising to the Challenge campaign, particularly in the areas of urban revitalization and school reform. If you are interested in participating, please sign up here.

Past Events

2016 American Counseling Association (ACA) Conference in Montreal

Cheryl Holcomb-McCoy, vice provost for faculty affairs and professor of counseling and human development, was named a Fellow of the American Counseling Association. Fellows are recognized for significant and unique contributions in professional practice, scientific achievement and governance, or teaching and training, and have made important contributions to the counseling profession. She was recognized at a national awards ceremony on Saturday, April 2, in Montréal.

As vice provost, Holcomb-McCoy works closely with the vice deans of faculty and with faculty across the university to advance and promote their work. In concert with her colleagues in the schools, she concentrates her efforts on enhancing faculty development initiatives, increasing faculty diversity and improving the quality of faculty life.

She has also served as both vice dean of academic affairs and chair of the Department of Counseling and Human Services at the School of Education. She has held appointments as associate professor of counselor education at the University of Maryland, College Park, and assistant professor and director of the School Counseling Program at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York.

Her areas of research specialization include the measurement of multicultural self-efficacy and cultural competence in counseling, the evaluation of urban school counselor preparation and training, and the influence of school counselors on low-income students’ college readiness.

Author and Psychotherapist speaks to Counseling Students

In early March, Chi Sigma Iota, Lambda Chapter and the School of Education hosted Dr. Clara E. Hill, author and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland. Dr. Hill discussed her book Helping Skills: Facilitating Exploration, Insight, and Action, which is based on her expertise in psychotherapy, dream work and qualitative research. Taught in the counseling program, the book uses a storytelling technique to communicate her research in a relatable fashion. Dr. Hill shared that it is important that counselors take care of their own mental health by seeking counseling from professional colleagues.

SOE Reception at Teach For America's 25th Anniversary Celebration

It was an exciting evening filled with conversation, reunions and networking when over 250 current Teach for America (TFA) students, alumni, faculty and friends came together in Washington, DC. Dr. Mariale Hardiman (right), interim dean of the School of Education, and Dr. Amy Shelton (left), associate dean for research, met up with Courtney Williams (middle), CEO of Torsh, an education technology company, at TFA’s 25th anniversary reception in February. David Andrews, former dean of the School of Education, and Joe Manko, an award-winning principal and a School of Education alumnus, acknowledged the accomplishments of everyone in attendance. The School of Education offers a master’s degree in educational studies for TFA corps members.

Student and Alumni Network and Discuss Pathways to Leadership

Distinguished alumni from the School of Education discussed their roads to leadership at the fall Student and Alumni Networking Event. Chief Tim Altomare ‘07, Selena Eldridge ’10, Joseph Manko ’07 and Christine Manlove ’88 were panelists for the evening, which was moderated by State Senator Bill Ferguson ’07.  Each panelist provided insight into their personal methods of leadership, the difficulties they have faced, and their accomplishments. 

As panelists responded to questions from Senator Ferguson, key themes began to develop. One such trait of successful leading is the ability to trust your own moral compass and to use that knowledge to make executive decisions. Audience members walked away with information on the ability to recognize and identify how leadership skills are dynamic and evolving. One guest said afterward that “the discussion and dinner with the panelists was helpful,” and another said: “The various insights from leaders in different areas was great.”

Chief Tim Altomare '07 started his police career with the Annapolis Police Department and Tim was appointed to Chief of Police for Anne Arundel County in December of 2014. He holds both bachelors and master’s degrees in management from the Johns Hopkins University Division of Public Safety Leadership. 

Selena Eldridge '10 is the director of Safe Harbor Christian Counseling of Anne Arundel County where she works with adolescents and adults of all ages, doing individual, marital and family counseling. Eldridge received her bachelors in psychology from Towson University and her master’s in clinical community counseling from Johns Hopkins University School of Education. 

Joe Manko '07 was named one of nine people who will shape education in the next decade by Education Week. Manko has been principal at one of the Baltimore’s highest performing elementary schools, Liberty Elementary for the past five years. He started teaching social studies at Booker T. Washington Middle School while earning his master’s in the art of teaching at the School of Education. He later returned to the school to earn his master’s with a focus on school administration and instructional technology. 

Christine Manlove '88 is the Executive Director at St. Elizabeth School in Baltimore, a middle and high school for students with special learning and behavior needs serving students ages 10-21, grades 6-12. Previously, Manlove was Principal at St. Francis School for Special Education. She received her Master’s Degree in Education from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in 1981 and her Doctorate in 1988. 

Bill Ferguson '07 has been a member of Maryland State Senate since January 2011. Born in Silver Spring, Maryland, Ferguson attended Davidson College, earning a B.A. in political science and economics. He received his MAT as a Teach for America high school teacher in Baltimore City Public Schools from the Johns Hopkins University School of Education in 2007. Ferguson went on to earn his J.D., magna cum laude, from the University of Maryland School of Law in 2010. He became the Director of Reform Initiatives at the School of Education in 2012. 

Join us April 29 at the Carey Business School for our spring networking event, Entrepreneurship & Social Innovation: Addressing a Need in Our Community. Contact Shannon Connolly for more information.


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