“You will need this some day. “

It is the thing that all of us as teachers have said to our kids at one time or another. As teacher-tropes go, it is one that makes some sense to use. Why would a fifteen year old care about when the Magna Carta was signed? Why does a third grader really care about the different kinds of rocks?

But fifteen year olds do care about power dynamics and fairness. And third graders are fascinated by their surroundings. And it turns out, understanding the world around you means understanding a great deal of the content that we teach. But it is up to the teachers to help the students to make the connections between the world of school and the rest of their lives.

At EduCon 2.5, Philadelphia superintendent Dr. William Hite told the attendees that teachers must be masters of both content and context, imploring the educators present to make school relevant to the lives their students lead.

I would go one step further. It is not enough that we help students understand how important school is, school must help our students understand how important they are to the lives we all lead. David Perkins, in his book, Making Learning Whole, writes about helping students to play the “junior varsity” game of the world they live in.

At SLA, our students have built sustaining bio-walls, they have planned a major education conference, they have created public service campaigns, they have made original films, and they have interned at over 100 sites all over Philadelphia. Whenever and wherever possible, we endeavor to help our students see their work as having real meaning now. Like the rest of our lives, not everything we do is the most meaningful thing ever done, but we strive to never teach in isolation, giving kids work that has no connection to the lives they lead.

This is at the heart of what we mean when we talk about inquiry-driven, project-based learning. And it is an important way we make sure that we work toward empowerment over simple engagement. Students will do the scut work necessary to make real connections and do meaningful work when students have ownership of the world and see how the work is important – both to their lives and to the lives of others.

And bizarrely, adults rarely are willing to spend the time learning things that are not of interest to them. All we have to do is walk into a school professional development session on the latest mandate from central office and see a group of teachers who look as disengaged as any stereotype of a teenager in a high school class could be. But walk into a school session where teachers are engaged in authentic action research or collaborating with peers on curriculum development, and you will see the learners we want to see in our own classrooms.

Why would we expect our students to be more willing to learn disconnected and inauthentic lessons than we are?

So it is incumbent upon us — in all classes — to find ways to make the work of the classroom have meaning. This means teaching mathematical problem solving so that students can apply a mathematical lens to the challenges around them. This means helping students to think like scientists and helping them do real scientific research and experimentation. This means teaching students that to think like social scientists and historians is to draw connections between the past and present, and that the space between the social scientist and the activist is slim indeed. And it means teaching students that the stories we read and the stories we tell have resonance in the way we learn, the way we live and the way we work.

It isn’t that we expect students to solve problems adults cannot. This isn’t about over-reaching about the ability of children. It is about understanding that there are plenty of challenges that are hyper-local or youth-oriented where they can make a difference either on their own or side-by-side with adults. And it is about understanding that we should not squander the energy and ideas of our young people by telling them that their ideas will matter beyond the classroom walls someday rather than daring them to share their ideas and make a difference today.

When we challenge students to make connections between the content of the classrooms and the context of their lives, school can be more than preparation for real life.

School can be real life.