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American Annals of the Deaf

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

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Haiku provided Bob with another avenue through which to combine poetry with drama. He gave many presentations and workshops at schools for deaf students. In general, he performed haiku poetry on a variety of topics such as “Hail,” “Fireworks,” and “Flowers,” which were met with creative and enthusiastic response. In showing how the students can “be” the poem, Bob would first take a haiku like the following by Shisea-Jo, titled “Umbrella”: “As I walk in the winter rain / The umbrella / Pushes me back.” He asked his students to imitate the action of the speaker in the poem. In this case, he had them hold an imaginary umbrella in hand. On their first try, they inevitably ended up stumbling backwards, holding the umbrella behind them at a sharp angle, as if the wind was pulling them back. He discussed with them what the poem says about pushing, what kind of wind it is, and how to represent this poem accurately. They must point the umbrella into the very face of the wind, he explained. In this example Bob illustrated the development of language skills, as well as thinking skills, with his student-centered approach. “This is the essence of learning,” he stressed, “if we are to get at the very root of the Latinate term educare, meaning ‘to draw out or from’ the learner.”3

When people walked into a class or workshop Bob was giving, they quickly saw how he demanded that the students “be the book” as the characters in the story or play became animated and real. His signing of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Cask of Amontillado” was as intriguing as the story of revenge itself. Bob’s classroom was his stage, but his students were actors, too. This was the mission of another course he designed, “Creative Interpretation of Literature in Sign Language,” which he had taught at the National Theatre of the Deaf summer sessions. For Bob, the verb “to be” was focused on the students and dialogue—not the monologue of lectures. Bob saw the “act” in “active” and “interactive” not just as an emphasis on involvement of students. He also saw it in a dramatic sense. This emphasis, too, was what drove Bob to establish the Drama Club at NTID to “give students as much hands-on experience as possible in whatever their field.”4 This is why Bob’s students frequently commented on his “come-alive classroom.”5

“A poem communicates its meaning,” Bob wrote, “by the total impression it makes upon the five senses. The greater our involvement and responsiveness, the more meaningful the poem becomes and the deeper our appreciation. It is the teacher’s responsibility to make this happen—to twang the five-stringed lyre within each student and turn them on with all kinds of vibrations. This is the essence of learning.”6 Bob always sought to “get rid of the paper work” in class and to focus on such facets as the aesthetics of verse. He encouraged the students to dramatize the subtleties of their own poetry through sign language and mime. It was a challenge he accepted enthusiastically.7 He would describe “circles of meaning” as a means of getting his students to delve more deeply into verse. He would analyze, for example, the rippling, multilayered meaning of the line “I have miles to go before I sleep” in Robert Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and in so doing, he would reveal part of his own life philosophy: that as long as a person is alive, there is more to learn and more to do.

Bob’s use of dramatization in teaching was influenced by the people he had met over the years. At CSUN, he had interacted with actress Nanette Fabray, and afterwards stage and screen star Vivica Lindfors was impressed with a presentation he gave on sign-mime at the National Conference of American College Theatre Arts Association at Maryland University. He had a lively discussion with her and other participants. During earlier years at the NTD Summer School, Bob had always enjoyed mingling with celebrities. David Hays had brought stage and screen star Celeste Holm to the O’Neill Memorial Theatre Center to speak. Bob had already met her at her farm home when he used to babysit for his cousin Gilda at her summer home near Hackettown, New Jersey, and Celeste was delighted to see Bob again and learn about the NTD theater work. That year, he also had met Robert Cummings at the Americana Hotel in Rochester, where he invited the actor to come and see deaf actors perform. Cummings stayed afterwards and met the students and signed autographs. Jane Fonda was also a guest at NTID in 1974, and Bob enjoyed meeting her.

One of Bob’s NTID students, Karen Beiter, currently on the faculty, recalls the act of “being” in a literature course. The class was discussing a science fiction story about a robot who developed human characteristics that included being able to compose musical compositions. Eventually the robot realizes he is too intelligent and that he exceeds the creative qualities reserved for humans, and he decides to revert to the original role for which he was designed. “Being a typically orally-raised person that I was back then,” Beiter remembered, “I presented the story in sign language the best I could without much dramatization. Bob Panara took the same story and dramatized it visually so well that I never forgot how he played the role of the robot and suddenly, at the end, he stopped his piano playing and went back to vacuuming duties with a


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