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Casa Grande educator’s undead teaching wins big

When it comes to the living dead, brains aren’t just for eating anymore – a fact that was on conspicuous display last month when a zombie-loving Petaluma educator made an appearance on AMC’s “Talking Dead” television show.

Greg Raiewski, a 28-year-old lifelong Petaluman, showed off his brainpower after he was chosen as the ultimate “The Walking Dead” fan in a competition to select the popular zombie apocalypse show’s top enthusiast. Raiewski, who routinely assigns his Casa Grande High School English students homework based on his favorite TV series, and on the “Talking Dead,” the unique talk show and therapy session that follows every eposide of “The Waking Dead,” was given a rare platform to showcase his fandom to a larger audience March 20.

How did a mild-mannered high school teacher and self-described “comic book nerd” end up as a guest on one of the most-watched television shows in the world, sitting on a sofa next to zombie-fighting stars Josh McDermitt and Christian Serratos?

It all started with a video. And it almost never happened at all.

“I was watching one Sunday night during ‘Talking Dead’ and Chris Hardwick (the host) announced that they were having a competition to pick the ultimate ‘Walking Dead’ fan, and that the winner would come and be a guest, sitting on that couch for a whole show,” he recalled.

Family members and students told Raiewski he was sure to win. After all, he’d been doling out assignments and extra credit projects based on zombies and storylines from “The Walking Dead,” which is also a comic book series, for several years, beginning when he taught at Kenilworth Middle School.

“I joked at the time that I should probably do it,” he said, “but then I put it off until the last minute.”

Participating fans were required to send in a video of themselves offering an entertaining demonstration of their qualifications for the “ultimate fan” title. A select number of videos were to be posted on the “Talking Dead” website, where viewers would be asked to vote on a favorite.

The video Raiewski sent in was outrageous enough to get the “Talking Dead” producer’s attention, but it posed a certain legal problem, since Raiewski decided to include students.

“I did the first video with students dressed up as characters from the show with others dressed as walkers, trying to get in at the window,” he said with a laugh, adding that he had to resubmit another video since his aspiring actors were under 18.

Within a week, it was posted on the website alongside 16 others, and after about four months, the submissions were whittled down to three, including Raiewski’s, and finalists were given one last chance to audition, via Skype, on the show.

After Raiewski appeared to describe his unconventional undead teaching methods, online voters selected him as the ultimate fan and two weeks later, just before spring break, he was flown to Los Angeles for his first-ever appearance on live television.

“It was surreal,” he said. “It happened so quickly. I still can’t believe it. I was sore from smiling so much.”

For Raiewski, the best part about his short brush with fame wasn’t meeting Hardwick, Serratos, and McDermitt – the latter of whom plays Eugene, a former science teacher who uses his scientific know-how to fight the dead. It wasn’t the huge pile of “The Walking Dead” collectibles he was awarded.

It wasn’t even when Hardwick called him a “sexy punk-rock brainiac,” after Raiewski compared Eugene to the fool in Shakespeare’s “King Lear.”

According to Raiewski, the best part was getting to demonstrate the joys of literary analysis.

“In my class, when we’re reading ‘Huck Finn’ or ‘The Great Gatsby,’ we sometimes trace the similarities between the stories in those books and the stories in ‘The Walking Dead,’ essentially creating a detailed analysis of the plot,” he said. “That’s proven to be a very effective way of teaching what literary analysis is to students who don’t get as excited about ‘The Great Gatsby’ as I do.”

What this teaches, Raiewski explained, is what he calls “positive academic identity.”

And now, because of “Talking Dead,” he’s able to share these academic enthusiasms with a much larger audience than he’d ever dreamed through social media.

“Before the show, Chris Hardwick told me, ‘So Greg. I see you only have 62 followers on Twitter. We’re going to change that,” he said.

True to Hardwick’s prediction, less than five days later, Raiewski’s Twitter account shows more than 4,000 followers.

“I have been having such cool conversations with teachers and students and fans from all over the world,” he said.

Asked what he intends to do with so many fans who are ready and waiting to read what-ever pithy pronouncements the Petaluma schoolteacher might make, the born educator reveals he intends to use his new superpowers responsibly.

“For the remaining episodes of the show I’m going to live tweet my own analysis of the episodes,” he said. “I think that’s a really positive thing to do, to demonstrate love literary analysis in front of a global audience.”

It’s just another way, he believes, to show his students that literary analysis is more than just a school assignment. It can also be very, very cool.

“What can I say?” Raiewski laughed. “I practice what I teach.”

(Contact David Templeton at argus@arguscourier.com.)

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