“It was terrifying, having all those eyes on us”

UCM students teaching at secondary school


How do you find a suitable topic for research? What is an efficient way to read an academic article? And how can you keep secondary-school pupils motivated during this process? With these and other questions, a teacher at secondary school Porta Mosana College in Maastricht approached University College Maastricht (UCM). Third-year students Alanna Staunton and Tessa Haugh took up the challenge.

UCM’s Applied Research & Internship Project (ARI) allows students to apply their knowledge in practice and helps external clients solve problems. One of these clients was Casper Gardeniers. In addition to teaching at Porta Mosana College, he also coordinates a course called Cambridge Global Perspectives (GP), a three-year pre-academic course for pupils in the bilingual education programme. He wanted to innovate the course and was looking for creative students to help teach it.

A few weeks before the beginning of the internship, Staunton and Haugh received the syllabus of the GP programme. How they would teach its content was entirely up to them. They were thrown in the deep end from day one, all alone in front of about thirty pupils. “It was terrifying, having all those eyes on us”, say Staunton, from the UK, and Haugh, from the US. They taught five groups of pupils in total.

Litter bins
Their first assignment: how do you find a suitable topic for research? Haugh: “During the lockdown, when all teaching was online, we advised pupils to go for a walk and take pictures, even of things that seemed irrelevant. The photos made us realise just how many litter bins there are in Maastricht. This sparked a discussion about waste in the world.” They also directed their pupils’ attention to social media, asking them to look critically at posts on Instagram and Facebook. Staunton: “We talked about a picture of a blond girl wearing a Zara sweater. The conversation quickly turned to fast fashion and beauty ideals. You can turn almost anything into a global topic. This way of thinking will really help them when they go to university.”

The two students are proud of what they achieved in the classes they taught. They also learnt a lot themselves, about reaching pupils, for example. Staunton and Haugh initially tried to use humour to win them over, but this wasn’t the right approach for them, they say, laughing. They used memes and Dutch sayings. “They didn’t even crack a smile”, says Staunton.

Being honest and vulnerable about their own university experiences turned out to be much more effective. The students told their pupils about things like mistakes they had made themselves. For example, Haugh spent the entire day before a paper deadline in the university library because she still had to properly cite her sources. “I did that afterwards instead of citing while writing. Sharing these kinds of things creates understanding and trust.” And, not unimportantly: “It’s a great confidence boost”, says Haugh.

One of their main findings is the “evi-dance”, a step-by-step tool that helps pupils do literature research. It consists of six steps. Step 1. Review the summary/abstract. Step 2. Read the last paragraph in the introduction. And so on. The “dance” is featured on their brand new website, the end product of their ARI project. Haugh: “We thought ‘evi-dance’ was a very original pun, but our pupils couldn’t see the humour in this, either.” It did work, though. “The step-by-step tool comes with an information sheet pupils can use to keep track of their search. It’s very easy to apply. The school will keep using it”, says Staunton.

Big sister effect
Arie van der Lugt, who supervised the two students at UCM, says that this ARI project is “one of the highlights of our education during the pandemic. I’m very impressed with how much these two students grew and the way they approached teaching.” Their role can best be described as a “big sister effect”, says Gardeniers. “They have the knowledge to teach these pupils and they’re only a few years older, so they’re very approachable. They bridge the gap between pupils and teacher. We’ve already planned our next ARI project.”

“It was terrifying, having all those eyes on us”