Kids Belong Outside of the Classroom: Innovative Educational Practices to Foster Relationships Between Students and the Community

Stop me if you have heard this one before in a classroom setting: 

         “You know, in the real world, you won’t be able to….” 

         “When you get to the real world, you will see…” 

         “School is a bubbleyou aren’t in the real world until you graduate.” 

This line of thinking brings up several questions. 

  • If the students aren’t in the so-called real world, where are they? 
  • What message does it send to students that their world is somehow fake, make-believe or inauthentic?
  • What does this say about the world of education that we openly admit to operating in some kind of fantasy land? 

I cannot count how many times I have heard the expression “the real world” come out of the mouth of a teacher or even the students themselves. To me, this is not only inaccurate but also wildly destructive. By separating the students from reality or somehow suggesting that they are not actual functioning members of society, we are stripping them of both power and agency. By implying the students’ current words and actions don’t count, that they are in some kind of trial run for the real thing, we are truly doing them a great disservice. 

One of our primary goals should actually be to help the students understand that they are currently living in “the real world.” They should be engaged in their own communities, passionate about what is happening around them and empowered to make a difference. Educators often remark that one of the primary functions of a school is to cultivate the citizens of the future. If this belief is put into practice, we must allow them to practice their citizenship in a legitimate fashion. 

One way we achieve this ever-important goal is through the power of Integrated Project Based Learning. IPBL is an innovative educational approach to learning that empowers students to see the value in their own learning, motivates students to make cross-curricular connections, and ensures that the students are developing relationships and engaging in the community in order to make a difference.


This year, our seventh graders are learning about different changemakers, both historical and contemporary. As a final project, each student will identify a local changemaker, interview them and highlight their achievements in a community-wide event. For this to be successful, we need the students to develop relationships with community leaders from a variety of walks of life. 

Here is a funny thing about middle school students: They aren’t always comfortable (or adept) at community outreach, so this process takes a great deal of teacher guidance and scaffolding. Once the students have identified a local changemaker, they need to research them, reach out to them, schedule a time to meet with them and interview them. In order to achieve this, we need to explicitly teach the students how to build relationships with people who aren’t their peers. 

  • How do you write a formal email? 
  • What happens if they don’t respond—how long do you wait to send a followup? 
  • Do you really have to say “as per my previous email,” or is that rude? 
  • How do you greet someone? 
  • How do you conduct an interview? 
  • How do you introduce a guest speaker to a group of people?
  • How do you send a thank-you note? 


When the student work is ready for the showcase, the students personally invite the changemakers into the building to be at the event. This is done intentionally, as it helps foster a relationship between the student—and by extension, our school—and the community. These interconnective tissues bond our students with the community in an authentic and meaningful way.

As the years go by and students choose different changemakers or organizations they want to highlight, our Rolodex of relationships continues to grow. When students engage in mitzvah projects or other expressions of Tikkun Olam, we have a database of groups and individuals with whom we already have a connection. These connections ensure that our students have guidance and support.

Once the students have identified a changemaker, interviewed them, created a poster about their achievements and life’s work, and made a public presentation about them, it is hard to see how a relationship would not be formed. In fact, these relationships can become so strong that many students elect to continue working with these people or organizations beyond their years at school. One of our students became an ambassador for a local charity dedicated to clean drinking water in impoverished communities. Not for a grade, not for recognition, but because she developed a relationship with a community organization and became passionate about a worldly issue. 


Another student became a liaison for mental health awareness programming in local grade schools with the Kevin Love Foundation. Through this organization, the student helps break down barriers and challenge stigmas surrounding mental health, particularly in the context of athletics. The student was even recognized on Lester Holt’s NBC news program for his participation in the organization. This is a student who wasn’t deterred by people telling him he was too young to make a difference or that he wasn’t in “the real world.” 

When we tell the kids they are in “the real world,” they will begin to act like it. 

Through this type of educational philosophy, students are of course learning reading, writing, math, science, technology and more. But what they are really learning is much more vital, much more important than that. They are learning how to be people. They are learning about the power of relationships. 

Making our students’ work matter is one of the most critical aspects of the job of an educator. Allowing students to understand that not only does their learning matter but that it can make a difference in the world should be one of our primary functions. Empowering a generation of students to engage with the world outside of school is the job.

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HaYidion Spring 2023: Relationships
Spring 2023