I also am still working on my series of lessons connecting the power of story to students's lives. The original idea came from Storyline by Donald Miller (reviewed in the link above), with that work being party based on Viktor Frankl's logotherapy. According to logotherapy, meaning is our primary need that we seek above all else.
So as I've been addressing classes and forming lessons (for teachers and students) my emphasis has been on projects or learning in general that always results in a meaningful contribution.
I don't want to manipulate students by bringing up grades. There are too many examples of fun loving students who have lousy grades. Grades matter to younger students, but by the time they reach the secondary levels, overemphasis turns the whole system into something about getting credit rather than learning.
I don't want to make promises of good jobs and lots of money. The connection between school and great employment has been revealed as a fantasy. And in our consumerist society those things are too far off to motivate students anyway.
My new focus is meaningful contribution now. As I've done this, I see the focus move toward learning--learning what it takes to get an important job done. I get less questions about grades and I see better work.
For example, one group of middle school students I'm working with is creating video lessons for third graders. For a professional development session next week I will have teachers create video presentations that will be shown to our secondary teachers who can't attend the session. Even just telling the teacher and students that their work will end up on the school website has added some life to the projects.
Of course, this is nothing new. I am just trying to make sure the projects matter more than just something for the teacher to grade. But I'm making a conscious effort to present everything in terms of meaningful contribution.
In working toward that, learning becomes necessary. Grades, credit, test scores, employment and good citizens are all natural results.