Heracles Panagiotides, Greek professor and autism researcher, uses puppets in his classroom to make the language seem less intimidating and more interactive. Photo by Benjamin Hagood
Professor Heracles Panagiotides teaches his Modern Greek language classes the same way someone might teach a kindergarten class.
But his style works. Panagiotides, a neuroscience researcher, uses puppets and early-learning techniques to simulate the way the brain learns language.
Panagiotides is the former head of the UW Autism Center and a Modern Greek professor at the UW. It is his research in autism that has led Panagiotides to teach Greek differently than other language professors.
He tries to parallel how children learn language by having students listen before they try to speak Greek.
“We try to overcome the difficulty of acquiring new sounds,” he said.
He incorporates this into the classroom by having his students play games, participate in simple conversations, and work together to solve problems.
Making extensive use of stories also helps students to overcome one of the toughest barriers to learning anything new, especially language: fear of embarrassment.
“In an academic setting, people want to be right,” he said.
But Panagiotides said it’s important to make mistakes and jump into things.
And you must laugh as you learn, he said. Your brain needs it anyway, so why not have fun while doing something that takes effort and focus? To that end, he has students use puppets to tell their own stories.
“It’s one thing for them to create a dialogue, where they are characters,” he said.
Panagiotides laughs constantly throughout class while telling stories and teaching simple words. He believes that having fun is crucial to learning.
The puppets are used as a tool to encourage participation. Students are less uncomfortable with making mistakes, because it’s not them, it’s the puppets who are fumbling with the new language.
Is it silly? Yes, but that’s a good thing, and it’s effective, Panagiotides said.
“There are ways to learn without pain,” he said. “Learning should be like playing a game. It has to be interactive. Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”
He enjoys doing both scientific research and teaching language.
“They’re both extremely creative,” he said. “The interaction with people and the joy of discovery are incredible.”
One informs the other, he said, and so one without the other just doesn’t make sense.
“I think they’re both intellectually challenging,” he said. “Teaching can be seen as a job, not as a means of getting something back, but I do.”
Panagiotides still studies autism and how to treat it. He recently finished a grant with a researcher at the UW Center on Human Development and Disability and collaborates with doctors at Harborview Medical Center and the UW Medical Center who are working on autism cases. Panagiotides said learning how to teach language better might help us to understand the brain better.
“For every language we know, we create a new pathway for that language,” he said.
Among the biological problems that lead to autism is the way the mind processes information, and thus how it manages those pathways.
There’s a “top-down” processing issue that makes it hard for them to understand the nonverbal facial cues of those around them, he said. This leads to many social challenges.
But if researchers can comprehend better how the brain functions, they may be able to develop treatments similar to the deep-brain stimulation that helps ameliorate the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
Panagiotides, who’s been teaching Greek at the UW for about a decade now alongside his research work, has graduate students, undergraduates, and even outside members of the community in his courses.
“The challenge with these classes is that people come from varying backgrounds,” Panagiotides said. “Some of them are very good, some of them are novices. So it’s a real challenge to teach.”
But Panagiotides, who is part of national efforts to standardize Greek-language instruction at the college level, loves that challenge. Recently, the Hellenic Studies Program at the UW, housed in the Jackson School, has been able to offer first-, second-, and third-year Greek, all in the same year. That continuity is important. Otherwise, he said, it’s hard for students to stay on course.
Sia Bartell graduated this year from the UW Foster School of Business. She took Greek classes with Panagiotides from 2004-2006. She said that the professor was “tremendous” in his energy, patience, and enthusiasm for the subject.
“His courses are one of my fondest memories of my undergrad years,” she said.
Freshmen Demetra Xenos (left), and Elefteria Contoravdis present their dialouge to the class using their puppets. Panagiotides thinks that it is easier for students to make mistakes as characters than it is for the students themselves to make the mistakes.
Bartell, who also worked for him as a teaching assistant in 2008, said everything he did — from getting people to engage in fun dialogues to cooking food — made a tough topic less intimidating.
Another former student, Renee George, who recently finished her Ph.D. in Genome Sciences at the UW, said Panagiotides made extra effort on behalf of his students. As an example of this, Panagiotides met George independently of regular class time to get her through the course.
“[He made a] personal connection with everyone in the class and put in a lot of extra hours outside the classroom to make sure we had all the help we needed,” George said.
Carol Thomas, a UW professor of history and director of the Hellenic Studies program from 2004-2012, took the intensive version of the class last summer to brush up on her Modern Greek.
“[Panagiotides is able to make] everybody participate,” she said. “We laugh and laugh.”
One shy student in particular, she recalled, “just blossomed” despite the challenge of diving deep into a new language.
“[Participation in Panagiotides classes is] not just calling on one person, it’s very collective,” she said. “It starts early, right at the very beginning.”
So why study Greek? There’s a sizable Greek population in the area, Panagiotides said. But beyond that, much of “the origin” of our language is rooted in the language, he said.
In the end, though, Panagiotides said people spend time learning languages because it enriches their lives.
“In academia, we learn things and then we forget them after a few years,” he said. “But what we don’t forget is the experience that we had in class, and that is really the most important, the critical thing.”
Reach reporter Will Mari at email@example.com.
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