“What’s up, fam?” While I won’t deny that it sounds stupid, I will admit proudly that I have bonded with students over their ridiculous (to us) slang. Fam: “a way to describe someone you consider family.” (Thanks, Urban Dictionary.) Look, when I was a teenager, we said some pretty weird stuff too: something amazing was “off the hook,” something not so amazing was “beat,” and something more amazing than “off the hook” was just “phat” or “rad.” I guess this isn’t that different from my parents calling things “groovy” way back when. But believe it or not, educators can cash in on slang and student culture by using knowledge of it to bond with students and “humanize” themselves.
I recently asked a student how she was doing. Her response was “aggy.” Aggy: “short for agitated.” (Thanks again, Urban Dictionary.) What a boon it was to know what she meant. I was able to bypass an awkward moment of confusion and lost translation. She shared that she’d had three tests that day and two more coming up the next, so her feeling aggy made sense. Thanks to that one student, I obtained a term that I could add to my arsenal of student slang and bust out when appropriate. Similarly, knowledge of music, movies, technology and other areas of adolescent culture can go a long way in making you part of your students’ experience.
Things to remember so that your students don’t see you as a stuffy, ivory-towered academic:
Language is a portal: Language is one of our paths into other peoples’ lives and experiences. If I talk to my students like I’m an Oxford English professor, they’ll probably treat me like a Martian. I’m certainly not pushing for speaking gibberish, and of course, I will always have a special affinity for the “Queen’s English,” but the reality is that you must be current if you are going to come off as relevant to your students.
Culture is always changing: When I started tutoring ten years ago, I can remember actually knowing a lot of stuff my students were into because I was only about six years older than they were. One student and I spent half of our session (don’t tell my boss) talking about the band Bright Eyes. Today, I’d be shocked if any of my students have ever even heard of that group. This doesn’t mean that I have to rush out and get the latest T-Swift CD (people still buy CDs right?), but it does mean I need to know what students are into and be aware that what’s cool today will probably be lame tomorrow. Just keep that in mind, ok, square?
If you don’t know, ask: I know you don’t want to look like the old out-of-touch dude, but if your students say something you’re not sure about, ask them to elaborate. How do you think I found out the meanings of “aggy,” “lit,” “turnt,” and “dunzo?” They’ll appreciate the fact that you took an interest and be more than happy to tell you all about their lingo and how to use it.
Be curious: As said above, students will be flattered that you are curious about their lives. A few years ago, a student told me she was going to a concert. When I asked what band, she replied, “Fun.” I replied, “what?” She repeated, “Fun.” Luckily, before the exchange devolved into an Abbott and Costello routine, I realized that “Fun” was, in fact, the name of the band. Hey, “The Red Hot Chili Peppers” probably sounded like a pretty weird name back in the day, too right? The point is that by taking an interest, you broaden your own knowledge base and thus become more relevant and relatable to your students.
Stay authentic: Look, I’m not saying you should go get yourself a Red Bull, a nose piercing and the latest iPad, but knowing your students’ culture (and trust me, it’s not the same as yours’) is key in being able to present yourself as something more than an old, lame dude (or “hardo”) who can’t see past numbers or historical dates or grammar.
Written by Phil Lane