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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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

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blank expression again.”8 Beiter especially remembered a discussion in one of Bob’s classes about how to improve Deaf education. They defined an “ideal classroom” for deaf students. Unlike what most deaf students experience today in the mainstream, this “ideal” class would be half hearing and half deaf. Everyone would sign. Educational expectations would be equal for everyone, with high standards. There would be no feeling of isolation in this bilingual/bicultural environment. “There were so many benefits to this concept,” she recalled, “that when I was in the running for a pageant a few months later, a similar question came up and I had a well-thought-out answer ready and ended up winning the pageant! Bob Panara did have a very positive influence on my life and I thank him for that.”9

Jackie Schertz, now a docent at the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, took three of Bob’s courses from him, including creative interpretation of literature in sign language, great world drama, and deaf characters in fiction, film, and drama. In each of those classes, Schertz knew she was in for wonderful entertainment, more than would be provided by a lecture. “He was a master storyteller,” she explained. “He knew the stories by heart. He became the characters in the stories. He taught in a joyous manner, without drilling.” But Schertz smiled as she recalled also experiencing firsthand the tendency that led to Bob’s name sign being given to him by Chuck Jones in the Drama Club. As she reminisced, “Almost always, Bob would run overtime. This invariably presented a problem for his students getting out of the classroom for their next class. Students often crowded the doorway and the hallway as they waited to get into the classroom.”10

Bob admits that had he not developed his talent for writing verse himself, his work would have held less meaning to him and his students. His son, John, recognized that one of his father’s greatest assets as a teacher was his uncanny ability to make words come alive for his students. For some deafened people, one’s own voice was the sole reminder of what speech was like, and as the years pass, the recollection of the voices of others fades away. John remembered frequently waking up on Saturday mornings to the sounds of his father reciting lines. Those from Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” sparked his imagination. Words from Blake’s “The Tyger” evoked a haunting beauty. When asked once what his greatest joy was as a teacher, Bob responded, “I guess it’s impossible to top Longfellow’s three-word statement, saying that the purest triumph of a storyteller happens when they [the students] cry, ‘Tell me more!’” In teaching day in and day out over the years, he developed a philosophy similar to the old “on-with-the-show” adage of the stage. He saw teaching as being the leading character in the same play that is performed, day in and out, year after year. In order to stay on his toes to try to feel fresh and keep the students enthralled, he would single out one or more students in the class and play up to them, with the thought that they were seeing him teach or perform for the first time.

Jackie Schertz also remembered the discussions she had with Bob about the assignments for class. “We often talked about how the themes and symbols applied to our lives,” she told me. “During those times, I saw the philosopher in him. We were blessed with Bob Panara’s wit, humor, wisdom, warmth, generous nature, and friendship.”11

Some teachers emphasize understanding a poem, expecting their students to read the poem and then discuss it. They would ask the students to write short answers to questions written on a sheet along with the poem, “as if that is all there is to appreciating and understanding the poem.”12 Bob believed that the teacher should present the poem first on a literal level; then students can attempt to sign-mime the verse. In this way the main idea is discovered naturally but gradually, and subsequently, the students go into the aesthetics of the poetry, including an appreciation of the sound effects—rhyme, rhythm, alliteration—and the visual imagery. Analyzing a poem, to Bob, was similar in some ways to applying the scientific method. It was discovery learning at its best!

The poetry patterns of many young deaf students are often in free verse, and to foster their creative efforts Bob felt it was important to encourage students to read more poetry to strengthen their skill, just as one would practice baseball or dancing. By reading various kinds of poetry, they should learn the intricacies of metaphor, simile, alliteration, and other dimensions of verse. “I believe the final product is still somewhat like an uncut diamond. The teacher has the duty to help them with the mechanics of English to try to make it as literate as possible.” Style, to Bob, develops with time and practice, and a poet, deaf or hearing, has a particular medium for saying what he or she thinks and feels.


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