Fairbanks teacher blends genres for local play

Fairbanks teacher blends genres for local play

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FAIRBANKS, Alaska (AP) — Michael Shaeffer has a lot on his mind.

He can talk about Aquaman being an overlooked comic book superhero, recite poetry about breaking into Sea World and discuss the unlikely fusion of Shakespeare and kung fu movies.

Shaeffer seems like the kind of guy who would make a fun high school English teacher — which, in fact, is what he is. The 44-year-old Fairbanksan teaches at West Valley High School, an ideal spot to meld his love of learning, language and pop culture.

"I've been teaching since '94, I haven't worked a day since," he said with a smile.

In recent years, his role as an educator has complemented a prominent place in the arts community.

He's directing "Kung Fu Hamlet," the opening play in the Fairbanks Drama Association season and leading a handful of former students in the production. That includes Jun Shin, who plays the title role in the spoof, which is a deadpan combination of Shakepeare's tragic tale with Hong Kong martial arts films of the 1970s.

FDA Executive Director Peggy Ferguson said Shaeffer's experience as a teacher and natural comic timing have allowed him to excel as a director.

"I'm very fond of him and have great respect for him," Ferguson said. "He's not only brilliant, but he's kind, and for me that's the winning combination."

Shaeffer started his career as a radio DJ in Brookings, South Dakota, hosting '80s pop and alternative rock shows for a pair of local stations.

He got nudged out of his on-air role along with a shift to adult-contemporary music, and was eventually shifted to an unwanted sales job.

The change led to his teaching career, and ultimately, his move to Alaska. After he returned to college to earn his teaching certificate and spent a few years working in South Dakota, Shaeffer went to a job fair from the Northwest Arctic Borough School District almost on a whim.

To his surprise, he ended up accepting a job in Kotzebue and packed for a move to Alaska.

"I thought I could do anything for 9 months," he said. "I ended up there for 3 years and loved it. I can't wait to get back."

He spent time in Chevak and Sand Point before arriving in Fairbanks in 2006.

He's been an enthusiastic performer, appearing in about a dozen local plays and developing an hour-long set of spoken-word poetry. His humorous thoughts include pieces about Patrick Swayze, Elvis and superheroes, among other quirky topics.

He took his slam poetry set on the road last summer, performing a show called "Hot Lava" for audiences in Minneapolis and Kansas City.

Shaeffer said his love of pop culture has helped serve as a tool in education. Although he got his start playing songs now three decades old, the experience provides an entry point for high school kids today.

"Music is a great common ground for students," Shaeffer said. "They aren't always going to dial in and connect the dots, but it can make a difference with a reluctant learner or struggling student."

He received an artist grant from the Rasmuson Foundation this year to teach the Twelve Labors of Hercules in a dozen Alaska communities. He started in Barrow, where his discussion focused on the link between ancient myths and modern comic book heroes.

"It shows we're still celebrating these myths, and people are still interested in them," he said.


Information from: Fairbanks (Alaska) Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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