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

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Then there was Emerson’s guiding principle about enthusiasm that became just as much Bob’s trademark as his name sign. “The trick is to have a lot of enthusiasm in what you do,” he later explained, “and let it rub off on the students. Plus . . . dramatizing the material in a way that excites them, then getting them to respond.”13 Too, in his interview with Bruce White for the journal Teaching English to Deaf and Second Language Students in 1984, he quoted the English writer John Dryden with a related principle—the importance of “teaching delightfully.”14 As Bob told John Clark during an interview about his career, “The rapt attention and wide-eyed look of wonder is satisfaction and reward enough to believe that Cicero was right in saying that ‘Teaching is the noblest profession.’”15

In 2003, Bob’s former student Willy Conley, who became chairman of Gallaudet University’s theater department, wrote, acted, and directed a video adaptation of excerpts from Tuesdays with Morrie as part of Gallaudet’s convocation program called “Building Our Community.” Following the video presentation about the charismatic professor Morrie Schwartz, who died of Lou Gehrig’s disease, Conley was asked to give a speech, which led him to look back on his own experiences as a student as well as his role as a teacher. He sent me an excerpt from this speech, which mentions Bob:

Buried deep in my memory was a drama professor who made a significant impact on me. his name was Dr. Robert Panara. I will always remember our lunch together in his favorite restaurant several years after I graduated from R.I.T. Like Morrie, he loved to eat—but thankfully, he didn’t spray food out of his mouth while talking. He was Deaf, and could eat politely with his mouth closed while signing fluently. One of the most profound things he said to me was: “in the classroom, a teacher should be educationally delightful.” He was not a stage actor by profession but the classroom became his stage. He acted his heart out with his teachings. What he meant was that as teachers we must “delight” our student with learning. Panara’s job was not merely to entertain or to teach us things that were easy and superficial, but to engage us in learning . . . to be delighted in the process. Professor Panara delighted me and I learned.16

Teaching delightfully did not mean grading lightly, however. Gerry Buckley, now an assistant vice president for college advancement at NTID, received his only C grade in his college years from Bob. “I deserved it fully,” he remembers. He was enrolled in “Deaf Studies in Literature” in the 1970s, and Bob gave an assignment to analyze a story in terms of the accuracy of portrayal of a deaf character. Buckley didn’t put in his best effort, writing a formal paper in a colloquial style, and Bob knew he was capable of writing much better. “Bob was always seeking to push students to live up to their full potential in the theater, in the classroom, and in their lives. He accepted no less from them and continually demonstrated to us through his work the value of this work ethic.”17

During all his years growing up, Bob’s son, John, recalled, he never once heard his father speak negatively about a student or a student’s writing: “His heart just wouldn’t let him do such a thing.” John remembers an article written by Alex Haley, in which he advised, “Find the good—and praise it.”18 When it came to his deaf students, his father always found a way to do just that. Of course, Bob handed out his share of low grades. It was never easy for him. Not every student could hit the ball into the seats. He could only offer to be the best batting coach he could be and hope that they would break out of a slump.

Willy Conley recalled Bob’s course on deaf characters in literature and film. Bob gave his students creative writing assignments that allowed them to find the Deaf experience within each of them. Conley wrote about his medical photography internship that dealt with photographing open-heart surgery in an environment where there were no interpreters and he could not lipread the surgeons and nurses because they were wearing face masks. “Bob gave me an A,” Willy remembered, “and encouraged me to submit it to R.I.T.’s literary magazine. I ended up garnering my first publication, which led to an ongoing love for creative writing.”19

Bob often used a bilingual approach to evaluating learning in his classes. He would give students the opportunity to demonstrate their mastery of the course objectives and the ability to express themselves through the printed word (English) or in sign language (ASL or sign-mime). Students taking his 1982 course “Great World Drama,” for example, could choose to do either a dramatic sketch or a written essay as a final project. Among his students’ choices for dramatization were a dialogue from The Hairy Ape and a monologue from The Glass Menagerie. The written reports included essays titled “Commedia dell’Arte: An Overview” and “Renaissance Theatre: New Stage Designs.”

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