Thursday, June 2, 2016

Creative Writing Final Assignment/Interactive Art and Narrative Part 2: Rationale


Rationale

 

“The development of the narrative capacities of the mind, of its ready use of metaphor, of its integration of cognitive and affective, of its sense-making and meaning-making, and of its overarching imagination, is of educational importance because these capacities are so central to our general capacity to make meaning of our experience." 

                                                                                                   Kieran Egan

 
In this final blog entry I will attempt to explain why this lesson plan is appropriate for my students, how creative writing techniques will be used, how it will support second language acquisition, my teaching methodology, and how technology will be incorporated in the lesson.

The Students

I have been teaching the same course for five years now and am quite familiar with the diagnostics and need analysis of my students. I have also gathered a lot of information from my students in consultations and evaluations. Korean students are used to being in a traditional language class, which uses cliché generic theme chapters in textbooks, involves a lot of rote learning and is centered on grades and memory work.  The lesson I have designed is based on the idea that student should be constructing knowledge and language in a unique and imaginative fashion. Moreover many students are familiar with modern technological tools but not in the sense of content creation, yet many have spoken to me about how digital tools can be used to further their language acquisition. Finally, the class is composed of students from various majors but always which always include Art History, Craft, Media and Culture majors, which will help act as a bridge for using art and technology in a lesson. This approach is experiential and will go to engaging them in meaningful language learning, enriching their academic years, and helping them in developing long lasting digital skills.

Tasks

Because the lesson is about art, I’m going to use works of art to elicit and teach techniques of descriptive writing and narrative structure, as well. This will help to engage students in the content of the lesson and allow me to scaffold learning experiences.  Moreover, the starter task with the Van Gogh painting serves several functions here: first, it will introduce the theme of art into class and second give them the language to describe a painting. Third, it also will serve to provoke their imaginations into seeing in a different way. I created this activity specifically because the “The Starry Night” painting is so ubiquitous in their minds from a contemporary commercial and various ads. However, by having them sketch it themselves and then rediscover it as it comes into view on the page in front of them is a unique participatory experience for them. This impression is heightened further when they realize the vantage point from where “Starry Night” was actually painted from (an asylum)and tie in the connection with the infamous and equally ubiquitous anecdote about Van Gogh’s severed ear (It was one of the first paintings completed after the ear supposed incident).  I’ve experimented with this activity recently and it had a very strong impression on the students. So, there is an added fourth purpose which is to get them thinking about point of view and different contexts from which to view a painting. Finally, it will have the effect of turning something familiar into something strange. This to me is one of the most fundamental aspects of creativity and artistic expression. Art through various ways (metaphor in writing, editing in film) can make the familiar into something strange and conversely it can make something strange into something familiar. But in both situations the mind is forced to see the world in a new way. (It is interesting to note that research by Bonny Norton shows, technology can have this same effect on language learners but I will discuss the affordances of the technology later in this blog).

Similarly, the Julio Cortazar story “Axolotl” was chosen to compliment and play into this idea of strangeness and seeing altering one’s perspective from a different point of view.  (It’s worth mentioning that student will also be familiar with Márquez's 1968 short story "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" from our other classes, which is a story dealing with similar thematic content as well) In regards to the video assignment Golden Earring, it will suggest a possible metacogitive postmodern point of view on a painting which they might consider to view their own painting from. The Tedtalks videos make this approach very explicit and we will also incorporate it into class discussions as well. All the tasks have been designed with a secondary embedded purpose which the students have to discover by themselves in pairs and to get them asking more questions because I want them to do something similar in their interpretation of a painting. They will need to look for more and dig a little deeper with their imaginations to become more creative. I think the tasks as they have been designed will help them to do so. The creation of the final project will be a strong reflection of this process.

The Final Digital Artifact will being using thinglink which allows students to embed their chosen painting with hot spots which the other students will have to find by cursing over the picture. This allows them many options for telling their final story either in disjointed fashion or in a standard narrative it also gives them the opportunity to add sound and other video so student my chose to create a link to video or other created content to embellish their story. The genre of the stories are open for students to choose from as well. This means they can negotiate to make a murder mystery which the other students have to solve.

Teaching Methodology

The teacher role will be largely based a initiating ideas and engaging students with starters and designing tasks, ensuring collaboration is effective, providing feedback, and finally and perhaps most importantly scaffolding and encouraging peer feedback.  Collaboration in the creative process is at the heart of this language lesson and it needs to be structured in an efficacious and productive fashion. I have tried to incorporate group work into the class in several places so that it can be transferred online with various tasks. This will begin with the Reading Circles where students will nominate their own groups and their subsequent roles to perform. Specific roles will give them more autonomy and allow them to be able to control the material as research by Palinscar and Herrenkohl has demonstrated. In particular, this can be seen in the role of confusion collector. Their 2002 study shows how students were able to find their own answers to most problems without a teacher, provided an explicit role was designated for immediate visceral reactions and questions beforehand (2002, p.27). This group structure should break the task down into smaller chunks for students to identify and then work with. The main collaborative component will come with the online tasks and it is online that I want students to learn how to engage in constructive peer feedback.

I have based this cyclical design on the ideas suggested by Laurillard so that there are approximately 6 groups of 6 students (2013). Within each group students will be divided into three pairs A,B,C. This will allow me to get them providing feedback to each other within their groups but this will extend outward in concentric circles of feedback to eventually include the whole class. For the weekly online tasks, in each group Pair A will begin the story and Pair B will provide feedback and continue the story based on their feedback then pass it on to Pair C, who will continue the story then receive feedback from Pair A. This is similar to the Exquisite Corpse activity or “the drawing game” played by Surrealist painters in the 1920s but in this dynamic the point here is to be constructing something together, and using language to do so rather than acting in mutually exclusive groups and surprising each other with the final resulting product. They are “in a sense trapped” and will find it “difficult to escape” using the language. (Biggs, 2003) Similarly, in the third week this pattern of feedback will extend out to the next group where Group 1 will provide feedback to Group 2 and so on. This feedback will be mainly questions for clarification and to help each group identify and iron on problem areas in their narratives. The final assessment will be done by rearranging the groups so that the final artifact will be seen for the first time by a different group in the following pattern: G1-G6, G4-G2, G5-G3. 

Technology and Second Language Acquisition

As mentioned earlier, students have requested to use more digital tools in class which is a major reason in terms of engagement and practical life skills. Students will become familiar will quite a few digital tools for solo or collaborative work including google docs, edublogs, padlet, popplet, and thinglink. It is hoped students will use these tools within their major and other courses as well. However, in regards to second language acquisition, using technology will ensure students are using English to communicate with one another. Further to this interface on each tool is written in English as are the How to video that will be used to help them. As quoted above, they will be “trapped” into learning because they will undoubtedly try and negotiate their narrative in Korean at some point but because they are writing online, it can be tracked, monitored and assessed. They will be given a quota for how much they should be participating but hopefully this will initiate more communication online with each other. Keeping in mind that this is a writing skills class and not a speaking class, the chosen technology will enhance their writing ability along with the regular course work. That being said, I designed it so that a lot of the online written language can be reused and consolidated in the spoken in class feedback sessions in weeks two and three.  Student will also be designing their own blogs which means creating their own visual space to represent themselves which will be empowering and give them a sense of accomplishment. It also works with the visual aesthetic dimension of the overall lesson plan. Technology will be used to facilitate second language acquisition in terms of a negotiation of meaning and content creation but ultimately the most learning will occur in the feedback process.

Conclusion

 As Smith suggests, the human “mind is a narrative concern revolving around interpretation and consensus” (Beynon and Mackay, 1992) This consensus is not only in the mind of the learner but in the community the learner is a part of and this is best manifested in the act of collaboration. The above class was designed in an attempt to bring more creativity and collaboration into the classroom and allow students to create a narrative experience rather than remember information. Although I have always tried to create imaginative lessons in the past, my experience in this creative writing course has engendered a deeper respect for the creative process and also given me the empathetic perspective to envision what my students are going through in the classroom. However, I think the most impressive discovery, even a “threshold concept” for me was in the area of feedback (Cousins, 2006). It is in the act of providing feedback where the most powerful and practical effects will be discovered by my students as well. It is a difficult process but one that forces students to clarify and define their use of language within a social dynamic which is supported by Vygotskian theories of social interaction in the learning process (Tomasello, 2014). But it also invokes the connection between what Bakhtin referred to as a “surplus of seeing” and cognition (Clark and Holquist, 1984). Having to perceive oneself through the eyes of another and then negotiate meaning ultimately forces one to respect and redefine identity as a collective entity in a creative community of learners. This, in turn, makes the acquisition of a second language a more meaningful and holistic experience. I have tried to design a lesson that will get students creatively involved in meaningful communication with one another and at the same time use practical second language skills and digital skills that will be used throughout their lifetime.

 

References

Egan, K. (1992). Imagination in Teaching and Learning: The Middle School Years. University of Chicago Press, p 64

Norton,Bonny.(2013)"Identity, Investment, and Multilingual Literacy (in a digital world)"Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fapiB6zgZUQ

Palincsar, A. S., & Herrenkohl, L. R. (2002). Designing collaborative learning contexts. Theory into practice, 41(1), 26-32.

Laurillard, D. (2013). Teaching as a design science: Building pedagogical patterns for learning and technology. Routledge. P 207

Biggs, J. (2003). Aligning teaching for constructing learning. The Higher Education Academy, p1-4.

Beynon, J., & Mackay, H. (1992). Technological literacy and the curriculum. Psychology Press.
p 193

Cousin, G. (2006). An introduction to threshold concepts. Retrieved from neillthew.typepad.com. p.4

Tomasello, S. (2014). Effects of Visual Arts on Second Language Acquisition. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/9539043/The_Effects_of_Visual_Arts_on_Second_Language_Acquisition, pg 9

Clark, K., & Holquist, M. (1984). Mikhail Bakhtin. Harvard University Press., p. 71

Creative Writing Final Assignment/Interactive Art and Narrative Part 1


For my final creative writing project, I have designed a four class lesson plan and assignment for my intermediate students enrolled in a Freshman English Reading/Writing course at Sungshin Women’s University in Seoul, Korea. There are app. 36 students each semester. This assignment combines the use of descriptive writing techniques, visual and literary analysis with various digital tools. The pedagogical approach underlying this lesson is a combination of the experiential, cognitive and constructivist schools of thought. The teaching methodology will be primarily based on student pair and group collaborative tasks.  However, in this initial blog I am going to detail some of the ways I want to engage my students in the use of imagination, the art of creative writing, provide brief examples of activities and an outline of the final digital artifact. (In the following blog I’m going to present a rationale for this lesson plan that will explain more details about teaching methods and design issues.)
To begin with, Sungshin Women’s university has spent a lot of time (and money) embellishing the hallways and campus with a great deal of art, both paintings and sculptures.
image 1
In particular, we have a spiral walkway that extends eight floors with app.50 paintings placed throughout and ending up at an actual gallery containing several more art works on the bottom floor. All the art has been created by local Korean artists and/or past students. Here are a few examples.

image 2
image 3




image 4
This art is generally seen as superfluous and ornamental and yet hundreds of students walking past it daily on their way to class throughout the term. In brief, my lesson is about having students, in groups of five or six, bring these works of art to life by combining creative writing skills with technology to transform them into collaborative digital artifacts.
 

As a mentioned above the class I teach is a Reading/writing class which is centered on the composition of various types of paragraphs (Opinion, Process, Descriptive, Narrative) and includes an intensive reading/literary analysis component in which students study various short stories in class throughout the term, so this lesson is not outside of institutional requirements. So the content and materials are can be decided by the teacher and students.

Material and Resources:
Girl with a Golden Earing (film)
The Fall of Icarus, William Carlos Williams 
Musée des Beaux Arts, W. H. Auden 
“Axolotl” (short story) Julio Cortazar
Tedtalks
Options:
Mourning Picture, Adrienne Rich
The Simpsons Episode: A Brush with Greatness
The Portrait of Dorian Grey (excerpt),
 
Technology used:
Edublogs
Popplet (mindmapping tools)
Google Docs
Padlet
Thinglink
 
The Lesson Plan: 
Outcomes for this assignment are as follows:
  • Students identify and describe basic painting layout.
  • Students discover ways of engaging with art works from exemplars.
  • Students will compare different ways a painting can be interpreted.
  • Students do a literary analysis of short story in groups.
  • Students learn to use digital tools to write a collaborative story.
  • Aims:
  • To develop their critical thinking skills
  • To enhance their awareness of digital tools
  • To enhance their collaborative ability
  • To improve their English writing skills
1st Class
Starter: Ss will be given the following 2 pictures and then take turns describing and sketching the pictures to one another without revealing the picture.
image 5
 
Teacher elicits context. Van Gogh's view from the asylum in.
 

1. Ss watch Tedtalks to help them critically analyze the contents of a painting.

How Art can Help you Analyze
 
2. Ss will do a Listening activity with Nat King Coles song “Mona Lisa”.
Ss analyze lyrics
3. Ss view Bruegel "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus" and suggest interpretations then Ss will read separate poems to one another “The Fall of Icarus” by William Carlos Williams and “Musée des Beaux Arts” by W. H. Auden. Ss compare and contrast poems.
4. Ss describe the following two still life paintings to one another and find the connection (the 5 senses) Students will then review how the five senses are used in Descriptive Writing. Ss  find example in last 2 poems. (They will already be familiar with techniques from previous writing task in our textbook.)  
image 6
 
 
image 7

5. Reading Activity: Ss predict plot of “Axototl” with the following painting.
image 8
Ss do literary analysis of story in reading circles with each member performing a different role. (Confusion Collector: collects all the immediate visceral responses, impressions, queries, Verb Finder: collects new and interesting verbs, Discussion director, Adjective finder: collects new adjectives, similes, metaphors, Connector: finds connections with world outside the classroom TV, contemporary events, etc) Class discussion.
6. Ss nominate groups. Ss move to Art Gallery area. Ss collectively choose a painting to use for their assignment.
Ss brainstorm, jot down impressions, capture a digital image, and consider ways of interpreting the painting using techniques from earlier in lesson.  
7. The class will then move into blended format and students will continue the task online. Students will create a morphology grind on Google doc before next class for Formative online assessment. The groups will be divided into pairs A, B, C (in the case of uneven numbers, a stronger student will work alone). Pair A will begin the story on Edublog from the morphology grid and complete it within 2 days and then it will be passed on to Pair B, who will provide feedback on blogs and then on to Pair C.
(Ss will be provided with a handout with useful expression for giving feedback and watch the following video and answer a set comprehension to compliment it.)
 
2nd class

1. Ss come to next class with a completed first draft of a story that will be assessed by another group and the instructor in terms of point of view, character,  openings and conclusions, grammar.  In class we will continue with our analysis of "Axototl" and focus on openings and beginnings and Ss will do various activities comparing how stories open and descriptive techniques from school textbook. 

2. Ss view following Tedtalks and answer comprehension questions on handout.


3. Ss will also be given an assignment to watch the film “Girl with a Golden Earing” and complete a Comprehension questions and do analysis of the film in a View Circle similar to the reading Circle we used with the text. And post comments and on Padlet.

image 9
 










4. Online: Ss return to open story composition on edublogs 2 days for each pair, online feedback from the teacher and return to class. This will all culminate, after 3 rounds of feedback sessions, when students embed their narrative into Thinglink and present their final story. The groups and instructor will then assess the stories with a rubric.

  
References for Images
 
Image #1: By author






Image#7: Baugin,L Still-life with Chessboard (The Five Senses) retrieved from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lubin_Baugin_-_Still-life_with_Chessboard_(The_Five_Senses)_-_WGA01515.jpg

Image#8: Jones, Z (2006) retrieved from http://zachary-jones.com/zambombazo/historietas-chiclosas-axolotl-cortazar-los-beatles/

Image#9: (2015) Retrieved from http://hakobapeb.kora-line.net/the-girl-with-the-pearl-earring-movie-online.html

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Self-reflection on the Creative Process


Reflections on the Creative Process  

Before discussing some of the technical aspects of my experience with creative writing, I just wanted to mention the three things that stand out the most to me about the process. I know now that successful writing requires an incredible amount of discipline. All the writers I’ve ever heard discuss the act of writing never fail to talk about a setting a regular schedule and sticking to it. But I didn’t realize how important this was until I tried to write myself. And secondly and related to this is the realization that writing occurs in the writing not in the thinking process that proceeds it. You can’t wait for inspiration, you have to find it in the act of writing which you can’t do, ironically, unless you are disciplined enough to write on a regular schedule. Finally, the feedback I received from my classmates and teacher was invaluable and essential to the whole process. I want to return to idea of feedback later in the final section but in the following sections I’d like to discuss the editing and redrafting of my story “Two Legs” in terms of Plot, Point of View, Character, the use of technology and some implications for using creative writing in the second language classroom.

Plot

“Two Legs” is about a character called Mark who has cut a semester of university to work for an extended summer job travelling with the circus. He is the low man on the corporate totem pole, so to speak. He has romantic notions about the circus experience which are slowly eroded over the season, largely because he is hounded by an abusive nitpicking producer, whose sole concern is money. In the end, Mark stands up for himself and has a confrontation which I leave for the reader to ponder. I came up with the present ending, in part, after reading Jauss article “Returning Characters to Life”. I liked the idea of leaving the final confrontation to be in the mind of the reader, “in the blank space that follows the story” (Jauss, 2010). In terms of the opening, I changed it several times but decided after the feedback I received that my original opening was effective in capturing the reader’s attention and establishing the setting. I think short stories should hit the ground running and throw the reader into a specific moment of life and conclude with several questions in the reader’s mind. In terms of Friedman’s plot categories it falls under both a Maturing story and a sort of revenge plot. During the redrafting process, it occurred to me that “Two Legs” is a sort of retelling of Hamlet, with the producer being Claudius and Mark as Hamlet. One of the themes that emerged in the writing is the conflict between imagination and compassion vs the pursuit of money and the practicality that implies.

Point of View and Distance

I told the story in 3rd person limited POV with the narrator able to relate Marks thoughts only. I tried different POVs but felt this to be the most suitable in the end because it allowed me to try and create more distance around the main character.  I have always liked very elaborate syntax that has a strong impact but there are several problems with this style of writing. It can sound very pompous and it also can distract the reader from the basic action of the story, which is one of the comments I heard in the feedback session. To overcome this, I had to keep asking myself who is saying this and whose eyes are the readers going to be seeing the story through. As Jauss stated in his essay on Distance “a film in which the camera stays the same distance from the characters, never moving back or in” would be a boring experience”. As a result, I tried to see the entire story as if I were the director of a film, manipulating the distance between the narrator and the characters but also the reader and the main character. As a result, I attempted to embed some of the ideas originally spoken by the narrator into the mind of the character in the form of a letter to describe the producer and then by zooming into the imagination of the character. I hope that the reader will see it from his point of view and establish a deeper understanding of what is motivating the character.

The Character

During the feedback sessions there were several questions about what my character really wanted and what motivated him. What did he look like? Why would a college kid work at circus? What is his actual job? What journey is he on? I tried to address these questions in my second draft and provide a background for Mark by using a flashback to a dialogue to both show the kind of world he came from and what his parents were like and create more conflict about his choice to run away with the circus. I feel my character has more depth than in the initial draft but I’m still not fully satisfied with by depiction of his character. In a nutshell, he has just reached a breaking point with his abusive employer who represents everything he dislikes about people who see the world just as a place to make money and this leads to the final conflict.  

On the Use of Technology

I realized after the first feedback session that I couldn’t let the technology sabotage good story telling techniques by putting my clip of the circus site and revealing the setting before the words so I moved it to after the 2 paragraph. I really wanted to use the technology to work in opposition to the setting of the story rather than as a way to just embellish it which in turn is supposed to enhance the coming of age plot. The clip of the circus tent being constructed has a very melancholy soundtrack and suggests a sense of loss in a place most readers would expect to be festive. I attempted to use the Powtoon clip in a similar way by juxtaposing childlike images with the serious adult crimes and situations described in each slide. I don’t know how successful this was but it was rewarding to try and combine digital content with the text.

The Classroom

I don’t know how much short story writing my students would be able to engage in but I think there is a wonderful potential for imaginative creative use of language that would greatly impact students success as second language learners. The act of creative something from yourself is difficult but very rewarding and leads to more confidence, agency, and ownership. Moreover, I think Paul Freire’s statement, “to speak a true word is to transform the world” (1993, p 68) is equally so for writing.  Secondly being aware of point of view was the most difficult concept for me and I think my students would find it difficult as well but it has the potential to develop strong critical thinking skills in learners by forcing them to ask a lot of important questions. Thirdly, understanding the mechanics and use of imagination is a very valuable from of knowledge that is often overlooked not only in language learning but in education in general. I’ve always felt imagination is like the invisible silent glue that holds most conceptions we live by together. However, we tend to operate in the realm of facts and assumptions too frequently. By doing close readings and attempting to engage in creative writing students ultimately become exposed to the tools of imagination which in turn could enhance their ability to interpret the world around them (and their place in it) in a more rounded and compassionate fashion. Fourthly, this leads to the idea of feedback and the creative process. The story I tried to write and the way it was interpreted in the feedback sessions was fascinating to me.  Negotiating meaning and sharing ideas in this way holds a great opportunity for language learning and I think students need to learn how to engage in this process more than ever in the new paradigm of connectivism. We were provided with a great set of questions and guidelines but we still often found ourselves in awkward silence. My students would too undoubtedly. But it’s definitely a place that should be cultivated. Finally, I think the use of imagination and narrative techniques could be used in basic teaching methodology as well, such as when giving instructions or explicating grammar.  

Overall, it was a very valuable experience, both surprising and frustrating, and I have a new found respect for writing and writers in general. I would like to be better at writing and be able to transfer what I have learned into the classroom with my students however I don’t know how successful I can be at it. But I have a good toolbox now and new set of questions to ask about the writing process.

 

Freire, P. (1993). Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London, Penguin.

 

Friedman, N. (1955). Forms of the Plot. Journal of General Education.

 

Jauss, D. (March/April 2010), The Writer’s Chronicle, Vol. 42, No. 5 24-35

 

Two Legs 3rd draft


Two Legs

“Listen, just keep your eyes on the freaks, kid! That’s why we hired your educated ass! You’re supposed to know the difference!” The middle aged producer Mr. Fetterling, liked reminding Mark, who had just turned 21, that “we”, that is, the financial team of the Great Canadian Shriner Circus, were the people in the front part of the caravan and everybody else was in the back. He referred to anyone who didn’t count money on a regular basis as a “freak”. Mr. Fetterling leaned forward, grasped the turnstile, spun it round, and watched it jerk to a stop. He seemed to ponder it, as if it was a wheel of fortune and he couldn’t figure out what he had just landed on. “Well, at least these damn things are working! Ching, ching, ching! Showtime soon, the high school kids should be here soon to take the tickets! Just watch out for the freaks, will ya! He jerked his head and rolled his eyes towards the empty parking lot and said, “like that freak, he’s been here all morning.” And let’s make sure everything is in the right place this time!” The last two words stung Mark, knowing himself to be blameless, but he remained silent, again, as usual. Mr. Fetterling turned toward the back door of the box office trailer and walked up the creaky tiny steel steps. Mark cringed when he remembered the letter he had forgotten to put away on the desk in the box office a few weeks before. In it he had written to a friend, “The guy is a funny pear shaped man, forked with two stubby little legs, in plaid pastel pants that are far too tight for a guy his age and he’s got a pair of white shoes to match his big white Elvis belt. He wears the same gaudy orange silk shirt from hell everyday”. But to this day, he still wasn’t sure if Mr. Fetterling had actually read it.

Mark unfolded the layout of the circus grounds and flattened it on the rickety turnstile, one of six in a row that resembled a hastily built barricade between humanity and the travelling world of the circus. He looked up slowly and followed his lanky shadow up to where his head was. Having short hair made him feel uncomfortable. He then surveyed the scene before him, his eyes darting around for anything that might be out of place.  The giant circus tent was taking shape, amongst roadies scurrying between clanking steel and wood planks knocking into place, with all the cables and wires stretching like arteries and nerves around the steel frame. The yellow and red canvas was hoisted, puffed suddenly then bloomed into shape, while the electrical crew zapped the final connections and the lights began to hum. Soon there would be the usual long silence before the first matinee show, with only the slow roar of tigers and the grunting of elephants providing a muffled sleepy afternoon soundtrack just as it must have sounded on the plains of Africa 10,000 years ago. Only this was the landlocked prairies of North America and the soft golden breezes that came across the SuperStore Mall parking lot, always promised relief but only left another clump of wheat dust sticking to the top of your mouth. Some days it was almost unbearable.
 
video

Mark leaned on the turnstile and the soft underside of his forearms recoiled suddenly from the heat of the steel. He wondered when the next snide comments would come from Mr. Fetterling. He looked out over the parking lot up and then awkwardly up at the sky and then back down at the man sitting in his pickup truck, because, it was the only thing he could look at in the empty parking lot. He had a sensation but if it were translated into a thought it would read something like how can you avoid looking at the only thing there is look at and pretend you are not looking at it? Just a dark silhouette, framed by a car door window, but it was a dark silhouette that was definitely looking at Mark.  He had on a baseball cap and his dusty old tincan truck with old style rounded edges, looked like a chariot almost floating in the sun soaked ocean of the parking lot. There was an Indian head with feathers on the door and the words Native American art stenciled on the side. Just to seem normal, Mark looked back up again at the Prairie sky. Mark admired the hugeness of the sky which always made him feel like he was seeing with the whites of his eyes. He imagined the same scene before there were big scientific discoveries or revolutions resulting from telescopes. He saw himself an ancient member of the earth and the sky suddenly seemed to be a very real and present god who had watched over these fields of golden wheat, and its roaming wild and raw horses, from long before horses were called horses because language had not been invented yet.  “We” to Mark meant men who had stolen this land from the Indians in search of gold and money.

The Circus had been under siege now for months. Mark hadn’t counted on that. The ad at the summer employment office was listed under the Marketing Section. He had split up with his high school girlfriend and he was generally bored with classrooms and essays and the books that were now strewn around his dorm room like dead butterflies. However, now, that he had become the producer’s personal scapegoat, he slightly regretted his last conversation with his mother.

What would your father have said, it’s only been a year since…..and now you’re running away with the…..

Dad would have loved it! He had lots of wacky jobs when he was young. Besides, it’s a corporate consulting company! They manage the tour. They’re all a bunch of suits.

They’re all a bunch of ex-convicts, drug addicts, and roadies and, and performers!

Come on, Mom, we’re all performers to some degree, aren’t we? I’m only missing a semester!

For the initial interview, he cut his hair and bought the same light blue button down and beige khakis, he was presently wearing.

Now, it was midsummer and nobody knew what to expect from town to town. To be fair to Mr Fetterling, the puddle of sweat that sat permanently on his forehead was not unjustified. The animal rights protestors could show up at any time. The new Cirque de Soleil had created a seismic shift in the circus world: big theme shows, collaborations with pop stars and, above all, no more animal acts. The big top would never be the same again. Adding to this was the constant tense and volatile air found amongst the performers, the concession people, the producers, and the roadies, which was fueled by the exhaustion that comes from nine weeks on the road. Fist fights were normal and sometimes there were even knifes involved. But they all were united in a common distrust for the people in the box office trailer which also served as Marks mobile home for the tour. The accountant and producer drove in from a local hotel in the nearest city. One time they showed up in a helicopter. The circus folk had all stared. The producer played each group against the other and ended up blaming Mark, the corporate gopher, for anything that went wrong on the tour. By this time halfway through in the season, it was hard for Mark to tell who to trust anymore.

 
Can we have the map now? said Tommy, the balloon man’s son, wiping his unkempt blonde hair from his eyes. He was surrounded by five other children, all at different heights. These were the little people of the Big Top who inhabited the air between the trailers and scaffolding and who knew all the hidden places around the tent. Too young to work, they hopscotched all day over cables and wires and popped the occasional balloon. They knew all 23 animals in the back by name, including Bella the new baby monkey. Cindy, the acrobat’s daughter, now had her hands on her hips. Her face was knotted up in a little scowl and her little  left purple hightop sneaker was on the verge of tapping the pavement. Mark pulled out the photocopy of the layout, he had prepared earlier from his back pocket and handed to Tommy. They all leaned in as he unfolded the paper.




Where are the dragons this time?  said Tommy.

Why do we have to find the dragons, said Jose, the jugglers son, the youngest and newest one.

Cause that’s where the treasure is, stupid, said Cindy.

Mark leaned forward and let his finger hover a while, then he tapped the paper firmly and said in a mock pirate voice, “Right here, there be the dragons”. He touched the box office this time.

They looked at each other and scurried away, with empty popcorn boxes jammed onto crooked sticks, frayed bungee cords and water guns clinking and clanking as they ran. The map was flapping like a pet butterfly at the end of Tom’s arm. In their wake they left the soft scent of cotton candy and buttered popcorn.

What are you doing talking to those little brats? growled the producer, his head poking outside the box office window

They’re just bored.

You think, do you? I think we’re going to have to have a little talk about your job responsibilities pretty soon.

I think everything looks ok for the show today.

Showtime!, barked Mr. Fetterling at some imaginary audience while staring straight at Mark and ignoring his reply at the same time. “Let’s get the show on the road! Can’t we have just one show without a hassle?” gripped the producer.  The list of things that had gone wrong so far this season looked like runaway train with all the crimes and incidents stenciled like ads on the side of box cars.
“Let’s put the mirrors and posters out”, shouted the producer. Mark started propping up the plywood signs and nudging them open and so the distorting mirrors which faced each other, created a kind of gauntlet for the customers to line up within. The mirrors were the producer’s “big” new idea of the season. “This will keep the twerps and rug rats busy in the line.” Ten signs later and Mark was about 30 yards away from the pickup truck and could feel the man in the old truck watching him. He walked back slowly through the signs watching his body as it distorted and ballooned into a chubby little toddler then reappeared in the next sign as a tall skinny guy with stilts for legs then bursting into endless reoccurring reflections of himself in the next one. Tom and Jose were huddled under the box office trailer, whispering. “You find it yet”, hollered Mark with a smile. Even if he was the lowest man on the totem pole, nothing the producer could say or do to Mark diminished the genuine delight he got from watching the children’s endless imaginative scenarios.
 
He positioned himself at the turnstiles and the vendors were in full commotion. The cotton candy kiosk grinding out pink sugar clouds and the popcorn man was scooping and stacking small bags of bouncing particles. People had began handing in tickets to the local teenagers Mark had hired, the day before, to man the turnstiles. People shuffled in slowly with kids tugging at their parent’s arms and gesturing wildly like little weathervanes. Cindy hopped and dodged among the customers in the opposite direction. The producer popped his head out of the trailer repeatedly.
 
The man from the pickup truck was now walking slowly towards the turnstiles. Beside him was a little kid with a long shaft of wheat in his mouth. The scrawny stick of wheat looked stronger then the bony arm he used to pluck it out of his mouth to spit occasionally. As they got closer the producer stuck his head out the back door and jerked his thumb in the direction of the man. They bypassed the box office and approached Mark.  The man had deep lines surrounding the features of his face. It was a hard face and his eyes reminded Mark of the sky above them.  His huge hands looked like they were made from leather baseball gloves.
Wondering if we can have a look?
You have to buy a ticket, sir.
How much?
10 dollars for adults and 5 for children.
Don’t got it, kid.
I’m sorry, sir..

Mr. Fetterling was not perched and watching from the slightly opened back door of the trailer.

We won’t be long. Just want to see what this here show is all about.


The man said then he looked down at the boy.

Sorry, sir. Everybody has to pay. The box office is right there.
 

Mark could feel the producer’s eyes on the side of his head. The man leaned slightly to the left of Mark’s shoulder.  Mark gently raised his hand and brushed his hair back out of habit even though it was too short to need brushing back. But the man was just looking into the mouth of the tent. The music had started and the dancing elephants with hula hoops around their trunks were lumbering in circles around the ring. The circus theme music was pounding from the tent.
The man cocked his head and said,
I don’t get it, kid.
Don’t get what, sir?
What’s with making animals walk on two legs?
The producer let out a long exaggerated grunt of impatience. “What the hell is going on over there? “ The back door of the box office smashed open with a violent metallic clang. There was a sudden pathetic yelp. The producer’s foot was tangled in a bit of the bungee cord the kids had tied to the lowest step. Before his four limbs could reach the ground, the children had scattered in various directions from under the box office. Their eyes were huge with shock and a little bit of the surprise that comes from unintended success. Mark wanted to run too, but only for a moment. His two legs remained rigid and the shadow they cast looked like a geometric instrument poised on a map. It was time for their little talk.