When Rick Ayers doesn’t understand what his students at Berkeley High School are saying, he smiles. It’s further evidence that language, as any good teacher will tell you, isn’t a set of words to be memorized and regurgitated; it’s a living, ever-changing entity.
Not that his students at the California school need reminding. Every year since 2001, as part of their “language and power” unit, Ayers’ English classes have produced an updated dictionary of the slang they hear each day. Photocopies of the stapled reference circulated, word got around, and this past fall, North Atlantic Books published an illustrated paperback edition of the Berkeley High School Slang Dictionary.
Although the format of the book has changed, Ayers says, the intent is the same: “I’m trying to get the students to realize that they already have strong language skills.” They still may need some help putting together a formal term paper, but when it comes to the argot of youth, he adds, “They’re the experts, and I’m the one who doesn’t know the stuff.”
The confidence that this recognition stokes in students can help them engage more fully in their language arts studies. “All of these students had brilliant vocabularies outside of the classroom, but once they stepped inside, they were too intimidated to speak,” says Daniel “Fritz” Silber-Baker, a former Ayers student and dictionary contributor.
Ayers leaves the research largely up to the students, who start by scouring their audible environs for new and interesting words, then transcribe vernacular conversations. They note their favorite phraseson index cards, and after several rounds of critique, discussion, and revision, new entries are chosen. The dictionary doesn’t include the usual barnyard profanity—too obvious, Silber-Baker says—but it doesn’t shy away from novel terms to describe drugs and sex.
“We have a really large tendency to try and ignore sex and drugs in schools or say ‘Don’t do it,’ ” he explains. “A lot of [the dictionary] is about ... looking into our culture.”