Today on the show we’re talking about relationships. Relationships with students, and how those relationships connect to the way we teach, the way we feel about teaching, and the way kids feel about learning. My guest, CJ Reynolds, author of Teach your Class Off and creator of the popular Youtube channel “Real Rap with Reynolds,” brings seventeen years of teaching experience and a whole lot of great ideas to the conversation. I can’t wait for you to hear about his “post-it” and “Googly eye” strategies for building relationships and making classroom management easier, and they’re just the tip of the iceberg. So let’s dive in.
You can listen in to episode 165 below, click here to tune in on any podcast player, or read on for the full post.
Meet CJ Reynolds, Veteran Teacher. Dad. Youtube Creator. Leader.
Today’s guest, CJ Reynolds, has spent seventeen years teaching high school literature and the history of hip hop in West Philadelphia (just a few blocks from the neighborhood The Fresh Prince left for Bel Air). Six years ago, he started a Youtube channel with his son, and when his son got sick of it, he and his wife started creating the videos he wished he had as a new teacher. Now, he’s working on that full time, helping others find and keep their footing in the world of teaching with compassion and creativity.
For CJ Reynolds, everything really comes down to building relationships with kids. Those relationships help you teach, show you what references to make, guide you in understanding what kids might be dealing with outside of school. All of this informs your practice as a teacher.
So today, let’s explore some of CJ’s top pieces of advice for building strong relationships with your students. Most of them are fun, many of them are unexpected, and all of them come from many years of practice.
As CJ puts it, we gravitate to the people we’re familiar with. By showing up in the hallways between classes, at the front of the school saying goodbye at the end of the day, at the door in the morning, you’re giving kids a chance to see you and know you’re there. You can ask them about small things – the band on their t-shirt, their brand of sneakers, and give them a chance to be in power by telling you something that they know. Then, if you can be really curious and listen, even if you’re not super interested, you begin to build relationships and understand your students better.
“Be a Student of your Students.”
CJ suggests constantly looking for things that your students are interested in. Maybe it’s Manga, ánime, the newest t.v. show… take the time to look up a trailer, read a few pages, or watch an episode of their show, just to understand their context. These small steps show kids you’re willing to go into their world. It makes a bridge between you and them, so that coming into your classroom world, the world of education, isn’t much of a stretch.
Give Kids a Chance to Share their Story
Building opportunities for students to share their story into your curriculum can really help you understand students and strengthen your relationships with them.
CJ uses “The Life Odyssey Project” to help make this happen, inviting students to share ten moments that got them to where they are today. He shares his own model first, opening a real door into his life experience, so they feel more comfortable doing the same.
Maybe you want to try a Life Odyssey Project, or other personal identity writing or multimedia creation. As you learn more about students’ histories and backgrounds, it becomes easier to shape a learning experience that works for them.
Shout Kids Out (Silently) with Post-Its and Googly Eyes
Sometimes the kids that are trickiest to reach are the ones who seem fine.
They’re quiet, seem to mostly get what’s going on, and never really reach out to form a relationship.
One way to help build relationships with these kids is to acknowledge their work (and really, their existence) in class even when they’re not asking you to.
As kids are working alone or in groups, consider grabbing some post-its and leaving comments on desks or notebooks like “Just so you know you’re doing a wonderful job” or “wow, amazing focus.” Even “Great shoes” will help kids feel seen, maybe even make them smile.
A goofier twist on this idea is to use sticky googly eyeballs from the craft store. CJ might stick ’em on a kid and say “I’ve got my eye on you” with a smile. It’s just a tiny acknowledgement to let a kid who feels invisible know that they’re visible.
Watch their TV Shows (or at least a Trailer)
When it comes time to build basic curriculum components – like grammar bellringers, daily vocab practice, or mini-lessons about just about anything, knowing what kids are into can be a huge asset. When you can connect your curriculum to what matters to them, you’re likely to get more understanding, more engagement, and better relationships.
For example, CJ would hold “Music Wednesdays” for vocabulary practice, playing a music video that kids needed to match to a vocab word. The students looked forward to the game, thinking of it as a fun tradition, while also learning the meaning behind their words.
Teach like a DJ
As you build curriculum, CJ suggests you pay attention to what students really gravitate toward and what scares them off.
If you try an introductory lesson to a new project and it’s a total flop, you may want to change the direction of the project.
He likens this to being an effective DJ. If you play a song that brings everyone to the dance floor, then you want to play more like it.
Asking kids how they enjoy learning can help. Simple questions like “What do you want to learn? What projects light you up? What was your favorite class last year and why?” can help you steer toward building curriculum your students will connect with.
Check in One-on-One
If you’re having a lot of trouble with one student, consider doing a quick one-on-one check with them outside of class. Just ask gently for a quick minute in the hallway, making it clear that they’re not in trouble and you just want to talk for a second.
Then try this script: “Here’s what I think I’m seeing…. (describe what you’ve noticed), “I’m wondering if I did something to upset you.” Though you may be sure you haven’t done anything to the student, you’ve just opened the door to a real conversation without putting your student on defense.
Keep a Clear Schedule with Timers
One strategy CJ suggests to help kids stay focused in class and avoid tricky behavior is to have a clear schedule on the board – even down to the time chunks of the class – and use a projected timer so student know how long they have.
This can help students deal with activities they really don’t like, since seven minutes of grammar sounds more doable than “Grammar Lesson.” It can also help them stay on task, since they can actually see the last minutes of an activity ticking down in front of them, and they know they’ll have to turn in their work at the end.
Use your Library as a Vehicle for Relationship Building
With attention spans on social media now clocking in as between two and ninety seconds, initially students may struggle with independent reading, but there are so many strategies to help. Talking to kids about what you’re reading and what they’re reading is a wonderful vehicle for connection.
CJ let his students choose the books he’d order for their classroom library, then held special unboxings with the class, using these moments of excitement to amp their enthusiasm for reading. You could try the same thing, whether it’s an unboxing from a shipment, or even an unboxing of the latest hits from your local library or school library.
He made his library as appealing as possible with lights around his shelves and fun hanging shelf space. I bet you’re already working on creating an appealing library too! He also suggests trying background music during reading as a kind of low key white noise to block out little distracting sounds. That way everyone doesn’t hear it when one kid scootches their chair back and unzips their bag. Instead of being a distraction, music can actually help block distractions.
Connect with CJ Reynolds
When you go check out CJ’s Youtube channel, consider starting with this video: “Reaching Every Student.”
You can also find much more of his work on his website, Real Rap with Reynolds, pick up his book, or tune into his live Sunday sessions on Youtube or Facebook (the replays come out on his podcast right here).
Hey there, before you go, do you have your free copy of my attendance question prompts yet? Building community with a quick attendance question at the start of class when you have time is one of my favorite ways to connect quickly with students. You can grab 15 prompts to get you started right here.