I’m a Pasadena area teacher who’s thrilled about the first day of classes, in part because I teach with a community of caring educators at McKinley School of the Arts, but also because we’ve spent the past few years pushing ourselves as teachers, ensuring our classrooms are high in student engagement and grounded in strong relationships.

Our program, Vanguard — powered by the Summit Learning model, a personalized approach to teaching and learning — focuses on providing the right challenges to students so they can learn and grow.

Unlike a traditional classroom, Vanguard classes are bustling with energy. On any given day, you’ll find my students engaged in real-world projects, collaborating in small groups, and cheering each other on as they learn new things.

As one can imagine, this is a big change from the classroom experience in which a teacher stands at the front of the class and lectures all students at the same time. But the success I am seeing proves that the change is worth it. Our students are curious, self-aware, and have a sense of purpose in middle school. How rare is that?

This approach places high but attainable expectations on educators to ensure that every child is mastering what they are learning. With a hands-on project-based curriculum that is focused on skills and critical thinking, students are being asked to engage in classroom work that is more difficult than passively listening to a lecture and memorizing information. They’re being asked to self-direct elements of their learning so that they develop lifelong learning habits like self-awareness, resilience and perseverance. I’m proud to share that four years after beginning Vanguard our students are not only meeting but exceeding those expectations. They are in the driver’s seat of their own education.

Do they struggle at times to master new concepts or complete challenging projects?

Absolutely. As educators, we support our students by providing individualized support on their work through one-on-one mentoring time. During these mentoring sessions, we help students work toward their weekly goals. These one-on-ones give me the opportunity to know my students better. During these check-ins, I explain why persevering through struggle helps them become well-rounded adults who can contribute to society with confidence and resilience.

Every year on the first day of school I start out by telling my students that this is their year. I tell them that they are in control of their learning and it is OK to make mistakes. It’s how you respond to those mistakes and how you pick yourself back up that matters.

I feel so fortunate to finally be able to reach each of my students and challenge them on their educational journey.

Lauren Partma is a teacher at McKinley School of the Arts. Contact her care of KUhrich@timespublications.com.