You Have to Have Passion: Reflections on Teaching and Writing from a Mother and Son
Date: April 1, 2013
Summary: In this interview with NWP Director of Advancement Susan Freundlich, Matt Luskey—director of the Western Pennsylvania Writing Project—and his mother Peggy Langhans share the impact of the National Writing Project on their family, as well as their shared passion for writing and teaching.
Western Pennsylvania Writing Project Site Director Matt Luskey developed a passion for teaching early on thanks to his mom, Peggy Langhans. A graduate of Mount St. Mary's College with a Masters from Cal State Fullerton, Peggy started teaching English in 1963 at a Catholic high school in southern California. She later taught American Literature and Freshman Composition at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, CA. Now retired, Peggy still writes every day and supports the next generation of teachers as a donor to NWP.
Matt paralleled Peggy's career, first teaching English in a Los Angeles Catholic middle school in 1990. He earned a Ph.D. in English from the University of Oregon and has taught courses in Liberal Studies, Interdisciplinary Writing, Modern Literature, Media Aesthetics and Film Studies at University of Oregon, University of Washington, and San Francisco State University. While teaching at the University of Washington, Matt served as University Director for the Puget Sound Writing Project. Today, Matt teaches in the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh.
Who is a teacher that inspired you?
Peggy: I was lucky to have several...and I especially remember my first grade teacher who was an older nun. In those days we had 60 kids in a class. She was known as the greatest reading teacher. I can't remember what she did except love us, and we loved her. Usually it was English teachers that I loved, because they had the spirit that this was the most important thing that they could do in life! Hanging around someone who is in love with their job is very seductive.
Matt: I remember several inspiring teachers as well and what characterized their impact. I can't remember the exact comments they wrote on my papers, but I do remember the marginalia. I had the sense that there was actually someone paying attention to my words and that there was a dialogical relationship between the teacher and me. Even though I'm extremely sympathetic to the paper load that we teachers have, I don't tell people, "Oh, here's the fastest way to get through a batch of papers." For me, that's in violation of the great moments I've had with teachers, where they've taken the time to understand what I'm trying to work through and have written a question in the margins, or have written a specific end comment responding to my work. I think that comes from the vocational sense that they're not just treating student writing as a stack of papers to get through, but as a conversation between the student writer and their teacher.
What are some essential qualities in teachers today?
Peggy: I do think teachers have to love their subject and their students. They must have passion. It's not about wanting to put up a bulletin board, but that they truly believe it's a matter of life and death that they teach students how to think through issues and change their lives.
Matt: Yes, I agree that teachers have to come from a place of passion. Teachers feel crestfallen when things don't work well in the classroom because we're so invested in the students. What accompanies that is the ability to be reflective in an ongoing way. Great teachers are always coming out with something new. They're thinking about how they're teaching in 2013, and how it's different from 1995, or whenever they began. I think that passion and reflective practice have to be there. And like Mom said, it really helps when they're deeply invested in their content area.
In what ways does the National Writing Project help teachers?
Matt: The National Writing Project helps retain teachers. There is strong evidence that NWP teachers stay in the profession because they feel like they belong to a community. There is much benefit to getting teachers involved early in their careers. It's also about helping to initiate that sense of the vocation of teaching. People who have gone through a Summer Institute become really strong advocates for the Writing Project. They really get it because they've experienced it.
Why do you support the National Writing Project?
Matt: There is an intimacy with participatory sharing of your writing. That's what really resonates with a lot of teachers. At the beginning, they don't know that the experience of intimacy in writing is going to be what works for them. To say "You're going to get a rich experience of opening yourself up and writing" sounds kind of new agey. But it's the experience of writing, and sharing your writing, and having moments of vulnerability and discovery. I think that is at the core of why teachers so often call their NWP experience "life-changing," or "the best experience of my career." The Writing Project is built for that kind of experience. If we can experience that as writers and teachers ourselves, we can learn how to pass it on to our students.
Peggy: I became a donor because I had been reading Matt's Western Pennsylvania Writing Project website, and he said, "You should check out the NWP website." I had decided that I was going to give to people who are hungry but I thought, "Well, this is a kind of hunger too, so I'll give to NWP." That's how I ended up being a donor. There's something about educational nourishment beyond the walls of a classroom and a school. Most people that I know are intrigued by writing for their own purposes or enjoyment. People often think, "You have to be good at writing to get a job or succeed in college." From my point of view, writing is also about discovering who you are and what kind of life you want to live.Interviewed on February 25, 2013.