We had reached the extended writing phase of our Ancient Civilizations unit, a parallel English unit connected to humanities. Students needed to write an argumentative essay that evaluated how social systems of Athens (schooling, laws, domestic responsibilities) favored Athenian men over women.
I was going to teach the argue text structure to teach my 6th graders who to write persuasively. However, there was an EL who I didn’t know how to reach.
When this particular student enrolled at my school, it was his first English-only school. Though polite and compliant, he had not pronounced any English words in writing or in speech. He was a perfect storm: selectively mute with an entering-level of English compounded with socio-emotional issues.
Encouraged by Bret Gosselin’s success with integrating Buncee into his classroom, I decided to differentiate instruction for this student. The student needed to engage in the same level of thinking - evaluation and description, but it had to be accomplished with the aid of technology. I allowed my student to communicate his ideas with images and limited text (if any).
What is Buncee?
Buncee is a cloud-based graphics design tool that transforms ideas into beautiful presentations. Students can create on laptops or tablet computers. Buncee offers many capabilities ranging from adding text, animation, YouTube, web images, uploading personal images, creating lists, stickers, Vimeo, drawing, and pre-created messages.
My students personally LOVE the sticker function because they’re beautiful, whimsical, and creative. There’s even animated stickers which act like a GIF, which I haven’t seen in any other presentation-creation tools. All students have to do is search for the item using categories or type in a word and relevant stickers pop up.
Connecting My Student with Buncee
I helped this student create his Buncee account, explained the differentiated task, and set him up to explore the program. I went to work with the other ELs. After my mini-lesson, I came back to check up on my new student’s progress.
It seemed like he had found his away around Buncee. He considered all the functionalities, searched within the categories for appropriate images and decided that drawing would be the best option. Since this student had not written anything prior to creating in Buncee, I didn’t know what he was attempting to produce. All I saw were heads and faces. I even tried to encourage him to look at the stickers. He responded with his usual frown - indicating “no.” I backed off the recommendation and let him work as I floated between different ELs to conduct conferences.
There were five minutes left of class, so I visited with my student again to monitor his progress. To my surprise, there was a line of text. It was the most writing I’ve ever seen him produce without the aid of a translator. Now the picture made sense. He was trying to communicate a scene that described how men in Athens spent their time.
Though simple, his first Buncee canvas demonstrated that he 1) understood the text we were reading in class about ancient Athens, 2) comprehended the task, and 3) is a critical thinker with an artistic, creative mind.
Benefits of Buncee
The three main benefits that Buncee provided was increased engagement with content, fostering critical thinking, and encouraging the use of language.
My student had to comprehend the ideas in the class text about ancient Athens. When he didn’t, he had to use strategies to help construct meaning. Once this particular student understood the ideas, he had to evaluate which ideas would be most appropriate for the Buncee and synthesize these ideas visually. Finally, though the text he used consisted of only a few words, they were the only written texts he produced on his own thus far.
The greatest benefit wasn’t only in Buncee’s functionality. Buncee buoyed my student’s confidence. Buncee simply provided him with a digital platform where he found his voice in the pictures and demonstrated that he was a capable student who just needed some differentiation.
The student has moved on from writing with Buncee in English class to producing extended texts with various ideas. However, this would not be possible without the confidence that working with Buncee instilled in my student.
Often, teaching ELs is more about building confidence first, then developing skills later.
Nathan Lang tweeted that, “If you're willing to teach in ways that others won't, you will have engagement that others don't” (2017). Before the Buncee project, this student had gone through the writing process the first month of school but was unsuccessful at producing anything - or rather - I wasn’t successful at differentiating writing instruction for him. I held the old-school mindset that writing is writing, and writing with the aid of graphics diluted the rigor of writing. Once I abandoned my traditional approach to writing, I saw new engagement in him.
When technology integration ceases to be a fad and becomes a teaching aid, ELs learn and achieve. In their book entitled Enhance Instruction for English learners, Parris, Estrada, and Honigsfeld suggested that we first start with sound pedagogy, then add technology where it’s needed. In this student’s case, it was needed as a form of differentiation. In doing so, it helped this student find his voice. Incidentally, it helped a teacher find a new way to support ELs.
If there were teaching superpowers, Tan’s would be taking dense research about teaching practices and distill them into infographics and easy-to-access texts for the busy educator on the go. Tan Huynh shares these classroom-tested, research-supported strategies on his blog (EmpoweringELLs.com) to support ELs and their teachers. Tan teaches at a private international and provides school-based trainings.