Connections!!! I've already told my students they will be sick of hearing me say this, if they aren't already.
Quotes...make a connection. Vocabulary...make a connection. Characters...make a connection!
Things are meaningful when WE give them purpose. I have my students make meaningful connections with their vocabulary words. They usually start by just looking at me like "how is a word personal?" But then I watch the chain of connections as they explain the word. Amiable reminds me of "amigo" in Spanish and "amigo" means friend and amiable means nice...so amigo = amiable. I love hearing them tell me something I never thought of before. Thwart has the word "war" in it and war has opposing sides.
Now I know we can't always have these wonderful personal connections to every little thing, but I'm going to try. The big question is always "so what?" The connection gives them the answer. So what if Hester Prynn is isolated from the town because of her sin, Puritans don't relate to me. Well maybe not but that feeling can. The feeling of being alone. The feeling of being judged for something you have done. The feeling that you can make a mistake that turns everyone against you. That does matter and it matters to many of them. The hard part is getting them to buy into this point.
And more than them connecting, it helps me connect. To hear stories about them I would never hear otherwise. To learn what things they are afraid of or hope for. To really give them a platform to talk about things that matter to them. Their connections are my connections into their world.