Inside Diego Panasiti’s classroom, students are exploring culture through music and language. Panasiti immigrated from Argentina as a child and uses his experiences as a new Spanish II and English 10 teacher.
“The backbone of my identity as an educator comes from my culture and it comes from my experiences,” he said. “Expression of culture enables you to self-reflect who you are as a person within the community.”
Drawn to Country Day’s small, diverse community, Panasiti felt a strong connection to the faculty and the school’s mission of diversity and creativity.
When he was a student at the University of Maryland, Panasiti joined a teacher assistant fellowship to develop his own philosophy to teach a college class. He majored in Latin American studies which gave him a better understanding of the culture through sociology, anthropology and literature.
Panasiti has made changes to the English 10 curriculum — replacing “Enrique’s Journey” with Karla Cornejo Villaciviendo’s “Undocumented Americans” and adding “Children of the Land” by Hernandez Castillo and “The Warmth of Other Suns”by Isabel Wilkerson. He hopes these books offer new perspectives on immigration.
“As a department, we play to the strengths of the individual teachers,” said Head of High School Brooke Wells. “If we have a teacher whose expertise, in this case, is in Latin American Studies, we will shift toward books that are more within his actual areas of academic study.”
Panasiti was 2 when he immigrated to the U.S. from Argentina with his family of five, which included his older brother and sister. They experienced firsthand the challenges of starting fresh in a new country. The youngest in his family, Panasiti was the first member of his family to graduate from high school and pursue a higher education in the U.S.
“I started pre-school in the U.S. and I was fortunate that I was young enough so I could learn the language, and assimilate to the culture of the school system,” Panasiti said. “In a way, I was a translator and intermediary for my parents. Now, I do this as my job.”
Thus, his goal for his Country Day classes is to create a safe and trusting environment for students to reflect critically on ideas presented from the books as well as current events.
Panasiti is using hands-on activities to explore culture by experiencing the music and food from different Spanish-speaking cultures. Panasiti also wants to make speaking Spanish natural by incorporating it frequently in the classroom and in student-led activities.
Freshman Priya Chand is in Panasiti’s Spanish II class and said she enjoys the balance between textbook and cultural learning.
He’s definitely more fun and engaging, Chand said. “I really like how he only talks in Spanish and it gets me to use the language. That’s very helpful when you’re learning a language.”
Outside the classroom, Panasiti is an expert landscape photographer and an outdoor hiking enthusiast.
Over the past decade, he worked at Yosemite National Park and became a hiking guide in the Sierra Nevada and South America regions. While he traveled the world with his camera, Panasiti developed a soft spot for landscape photography and outdoor activities.
His history with hiking goes back to his graduate school days, a stressful time. Panasiti said hiking was the perfect activity for him. In the Spring of 2007, he took a hiking trip in the Shenandoah National Park with friends.
Panasiti said the beauty struck him and sparked his passion for hiking.
“When the wind blows, it’s a visual orchestra and when it rains, it sounds like a harpsichord and when it finishes, it leaves a pungent smell of Earth and flowers,” Panasiti said. “The visuals, colors and smell bring a positive overload, enough for stress to take a backseat. In a way, it’s like nature’s medicine.”
Especially during the pandemic, Panasiti brainstormed potential activities that would address students’ mental health. He believes that hiking will be a great de-stressing activity for students. Using his experience as a hiking guide, Panasiti plans to form a club and develop an outdoor education program in the future.
“The perfect thing for mental health is nature,” Panasiti said.
Head of Spanish and former Spanish II teacher Patricia Portillo, has high hopes for Panasiti. “He has an extensive curriculum and life experiences that will benefit our student body: a background in Latin American Studies, sociology and Spanish, solid teaching experience, leadership skills, and passion for the outdoors,” Portillo said. “All in all, we are lucky to have him at Country Day!”
Originally published in the September 21 edition of the Octagon.