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Teaching from the Heart and Soul: The Robert F. Panara Story

Harry G. Lang

Being and Reading

In a 1974 video of Bob teaching the elements of poetry, he asks his class to read John Masefield’s “The West Wind.” He guides them toward an understanding of alliteration in the first line: “It’s a warm wind, the west wind, full of birds’ cries.” They discuss their own experiences in using their senses to feel wind and, for some students, to hear the cries of birds. He dramatizes being there, smelling the daffodils. They discuss similes when they reach the second line of the second stanza, “Apple orchards blossom there, and the air’s like wine.” How would a child interpret “the air’s like wine”? Bob asks, encouraging them to think about language and thought and how experience plays a role in interpreting a poem. “Do you smell anything?” he follows as his class reads, “It’s April, and blossom time, and white is the may.” By the time the class finishes the poem, the students not only know how to use their senses to analyze a poem, but how to be there in the countryside, realizing the full meaning of “spring” and “spring fever.”

Bob then examines a line from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “My life has crept so long on a broken wing.” He asks a student to act out the word “crept” so that the whole class senses the slow and careful nature of the movement. And in advancing through additional lines, the students become part of the verse. Whether it is Bob or the students acting out the lines to construct meaning, there are smiles on all their faces.

Perhaps the greatest characteristic of Bob’s exemplary teaching was his emphasis on the verb “to be.” Today there is research supporting student-centered “active,” “participative,” or “interactive” approaches. But this was “old hat” for Bob, who developed this mode of teaching through intuition and experience. He had always believed in emphasizing the involvement of students in the classroom. Over the years, he had collected several dictums that defined his teaching. Influenced by Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium Is the Message Bob encouraged his students not only to read a book, but be the book. Another influence came from Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica”: “A poem should not mean / But be.” Bob saw poetry as being much more than words with aesthetic qualities. Poetry, to him, is one of the best means for communicating ideas, enlarging vocabulary, and teaching language. In 1979, he published an article titled “On Teaching Poetry to the Deaf (Or: Let the Student Be the Poem!)” in the American Annals of the Deaf. In arithmetic, he argued, children learn such terminology as “add,” “subtract,” “multiply,” and “divide.” In geography, they learn “latitude” and “longitude” and many other terms. But, he lamented, teachers have not been trained well to use poetry in the earlier grades to help the students develop a critical vocabulary as well as an appreciation for verse. “Once that happens,” he explained, “there’s no limit as to where they may go. And it stretches their imagination, enhances their sensitivity to beauty or artistry of written expression.”1 He wrote:

Why teach poetry? For the very same reason that we teach the language arts . . . it helps to stimulate creativity and self expression, and it encourages the development of a student’s intellectual faculties—imagination, thinking, and interpretation. . . . As in exposure to dramatics or dancing, it makes students react emotionally and sensitively to artistry of expression. . . . Through the language of poetry, students can learn to perceive how the commonplace is made to seem uncommon, how old words can be expressed with freshness, originality, and beauty.2

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