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What Would Real Engagement Look Like?

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By: John Danner

When Preston Smith and I started Rocketship almost 9 years ago, one of the things he really cared about was the relationship between teachers and parents. It had been incredibly important to his success as both a teacher and principal. Preston built an incredibly deep culture of parent engagement at Rocketship with home visits to every family, monthly community meetings, and volunteer time in every classroom. It really worked; it helped parents understand their children better and what they could do to support them. The involvement of parents adds a richness to the Rocketship schools that is hard to describe. His passion was a tremendously important lesson to me.

About a year ago, I started a new company called Zeal. Zeal is an online learning system that helps teachers differentiate as easily as they do whole-class instruction (no separate lesson plans, no extra assessments, etc.) This allows teachers to reach their high and low performing students easily. We know that if we can make it as easy to teach your class in an individualized manner as whole-class, that many teachers will do it. Teachers feel tremendous guilt that they can only teach so many different things at once. Zeal helps them solve that problem by managing the tactics of what each student learns while the teacher can focus on the goal and coaching students who need extra help.

When we were designing Zeal, we thought a lot about parents. One thing that I learned from Rocketship is that if you can get parents engaged with their children, you can make a lot more progress. One of the things I learned as a parent of two children is that you are in the dark almost all year long. Once a year you get a report card and have a teacher conference and feel really good about your ability to help your child for about a week. Other than that, staying informed takes a lot of work. So one of the things we are working on at Zeal is allowing parents to see exactly how their children are doing academically, whenever they want to know. And then, when they have questions or want to know how to help, we are making it easy for them to be able to message the teacher within our app. Likewise, if the teacher feels a child needs extra help on something, they can message the parent to work with them on their phone that night.

These simple ideas of transparency and convenient communication are crucial, because parents are extremely busy, and if engagement takes too much work, many parents won't have the time to do it. I believe what we are doing at Zeal will be the norm in the future. Many more parents will be fully informed and engaged because of apps they can use on their smartphones like Zeal. In effect, we will be opening the virtual doors to our school so that parents can observe and participate with their child and the teacher in a way that they could never do in the physical world. That engagement will translate into a lot more support for students at home.

John Danner is the co-Founder and CEO of Zeal, a software startup pioneering the next generation of online social learning. Zeal is making it much easier for students and teachers to ensure that every child learns every day at exactly their developmental level. Zeal's first partner in this venture is Rocketship Education, where John was co-Founder and CEO for the previous eight years. He is an Aspen Institute Crown Fellow, Ashoka Fellow, and was the 2010 winner of the McNulty Prize for Social Entrepreneurship from the Aspen Institute.

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