The Tell Tale Wrists: a short story (from 7-10-13)

(Another fictional take on education that I’m still pretty happy with… DLF 2-20-20)

It’s fiction time again. In case you hadn’t heard, the Gates Foundation is one of the investors in experimental bio-metric bracelets that would measure student engagement and attentiveness through electrical signals in their skin. As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up.They have insisted that it would not be used to measure teacher effectiveness, but even aside from that issue, I have some problems with such a system– and some doubts. Rather than write a more factual blog post, however, I decided to have some fun. Enjoy.

The Tell Tale Wrists 

by David Lee Finkle

The students fiddled with their wrists. Or, rather, they fiddled with the shiny metallic bracelets around their wrists. They were a little too tight. But they had to be a little too tight—it meant they were tight enough to work.

            Mr. Dessler watched them, wondering what kind of data they’d get if they’d put a bracelet on him right now. Elevated heart rate? Increased pace of respiration? Could the bracelet sense sweat, or different varieties of sweat? Could it sense the difference between an honest, clean exertion sweat from after a run or workout and the tense secretions emitted by a body under stress that smelled vaguely like cologne gone bad or cat pee? If the bracelet could distinguish sweat from sweat, then his was less clean and more cat pee at this point, all powered by cortisol and shallow breathing and increased heart rate.

            The bell rang and he waited for the students to stop their mindless chatter to settle in for the “bell-ringer”—the activity designed to begin class in an orderly fashion and engage students with learning from the very first. Except that they didn’t look engaged. Well, not in the bell-ringer anyway. They continued talking. Not all of them even had their notebooks out, and those who did, didn’t have them opened to their bell-ringer paper. And not all of those who had their papers out had a pen or pencil out. And not all those with a pen or pencil out were actually writing the bell-ringer.

            Actually, only one student was doing that. Stuart.

            Stuart sat, bolt upright, his notebook and pen out. His straight dark hair fell down his forehead, almost resting on his round wire-frame glasses. He squinted a little, narrowing his eyes in concentration as he copied down the bell-ringer, which asked students to correct a short passage with an inconsistent point of view.

            He, at least, was engaged.

            Mr. Dessler looked at the rest of the class. Nobody else was. But he needed to handle this carefully. He needed to engage them, not coerce them. The engagement was being measured. He mustn’t yell or do anything that would upset the delicate balance of their biometric readings.

            “Hey—everybody! Some of you don’t have your notebooks out yet, and I’m sure that’s because it’s still the morning, and even though it’s actually almost lunch time, you’re not awake yet. And even though we’ve had the same procedure in place for one hundred and seventeen school days so far, I know it’s easy to forget that you should turn to your bell-ringer page and get started when the bell rings. So this is just a friendly reminder! Same goes for those of you with notebooks out but who aren’t on the right page and-or don’t have a writing utensil out.” He tried to sound very chipper and upbeat, maybe just a little humorous, without being sarcastic. Sarcasm was bad. It sent out brainwaves from that “lizard” part of your brain, and that would affect the students’ readings. He raised and lowered his eyebrows, used exaggerated, showman like gestures to point to the screen where the bell ringer was projected.

            The students didn’t seem all that engaged. Mr. Dessler’s own heart rate increased even more. His palms were sweating. Should he go around and talk to students one on one? It was impossible not to engage them then! But then it was only engagement for one student at a time. No, the whole group’s average engagement was what mattered, not the individual students. He needed to remember that.

            He decided to walk up and down the rows, encouraging them individually, but very briefly. He needed them to get the bell-ringer done, because even if that wasn’t engaging, certainly the main lesson would be. He hoped.

            Mr. Dessler glanced around. Nearly everybody had a notebook out now and was working. That was a step in the right direction! He looked at their bracelets. They weren’t fiddling with them anymore now that they were working. What signals were the bracelets sending out right now? The students were working, but were they sending out engaged vibes to the tiny, hyper-sensitive sensors on their wrists? What were the students thinking about his point of view bell-ringer?

Suzie wrote down the stupid bell-ringer, hoping to get it over with. But she kept darting eyes back up the row next her—back to where Jack sat. He was tall and tan, athletic, with dark hair and blue eyes. And those dark lashes. And those lips, full and sensual, but not at all feminine. Oh, man, she wanted to kiss those lips. He was so hot! She felt her pulse quicken. He looked up from his notebook and she turned her attention back to the bell-ringer, her face flushing. She looked back again, just a quick glance. He didn’t seem to have noticed her staring. Did he ever stare at her? Did he know she was even there in class with him? Maybe she should try to talk to him in the hall after class, but they had never talked. What would she say? She knew what she wanted to ask him. Do you ever notice me?

            Jack wrote down the exercise, not worrying about corrections; in fact, he was hardly reading the bell-ringer. He was thinking about the game yesterday. He should have made that basket. Why hadn’t he made the basket? Should he have stopped dribbling closer to the basket for a shorter throw? Should have stopped farther back for a better vantage point, a better view? As it was, he’d been forced to stop where he did, and the basketball had flown through the air, had looked like it was going to sail through the basket. It had looked like the game was going to be theirs. But it had hit the rim, rolled around it, circling three times… and then teetering on the edge of the metal circle. In or out? In or out? In or out? Out. Jeez, that sucked. They lost the game thanks to him. Wait—had he just written the same sentence twice? He glanced up at the board to check and noticed that blond girl up front blush and turn away. What a weirdo. You know, he thought, I need to play games where losing isn’t so… public. Maybe I’ll start going over to Gavin’s again. He’s got an awesome system. Dang it, I wrote the same sentence a third time.

            Randy looked forward and noticed Suzie staring back at Jack and then pretending not to. Why did the girls always go for the sports guys? Jack didn’t even notice her. He was probably replaying that bad play from last night’s game in his head again. Of course, maybe after last night’s game, after Jack’s major screw-up, maybe she’d lose interest in him. But no, she was staring at him again. Hey, Suzie, look back here! We could stare at each other!

            Mr. Dessler’s little egg-timer bell dinged. “All right! Times up! Who’d like to come up and make corrections! You get to write on the board with the dry erase markers! I knoooow you like that!” He was trying to be as entertaining as possible—stand-up comedian with authority. And they really did like writing on the board—just not when it was for academic reasons. No one raised a hand. Maybe he should start offering candy. But no—apparently the bracelets could detect spikes in blood sugar. “Anyone? Come on! Well, okay—I’ll correct it with your help! Why don’t you… I know! Why don’t you exchange papers with someone near you and correct your partner’s paper? Come on! Let’s go!” He walked around, encouraging the exchange of papers. Students groaned, but obeyed, and a great many of them tried to resume their conversations from before the start of class. “Now quiet down! We don’t have time to waste! This is going to be fun!” he announced. Was it going to be fun? Was he even having fun at this point? No matter. He would make it fun. He could make punctuation, grammar and point of view as engaging as a video game. He had to.

            Gavin handed his paper over to Jack, who said, “Gavin, how ‘bout I come over after school to play on that Game Station of yours? Your TV screen is so awesome—it’s huge!”

            Gavin stared at Jack coldly. Jack used to come over all the time for gaming—until he’d landed his spot on the basketball team. Then he’d been too cool for Gavin and his pasty friends. “Want a game you can play that won’t get you booed by people in the stands?” Gavin had heard about Jack losing the game the previous night. He almost wished he’d been there to see it.

But he hadn’t. He’d been home playing Munchkin Wars 7.7. His mind drifted back to last night’s game—his not Jack’s, and he didn’t even hear Jack say, “You suck, man.”

            Gavin needed to find a way to get his Munchkin past the spider-zombie hoards in the Archipelago of Arachnids. His Life and Health were low, and he was running low on Munitions. He needed a way back out, temporarily, to get the supplies he needed at the Ye Olde Foreste Malle, but he’d used up all his Trick-Travel-Portals as well…

            A new voice broke into his thoughts. Mr. Dessler was blabbing again. “And why is  it important to have a consistent point of view in your story?” he was asking.

            Gavin glanced back at Jack’s paper. He’d written the same sentence, the first one in the exercise, three times. Moron. Of course—Jack’s character had had plenty of Health, Life, Munitions and Portals last time they’d played. If Jack came back into the game, he could get him to portal into the islands, steal his supplies, and throw him to the spider-zombies. He’d be sure to get to the next level in no time… Of course, Jack must never suspect anything. Gavin turned to him. “Dude, I’m sorry. That was a mean dig about last night’s game. Do you want to come over after school and dig Marvin Munchkin out of his slumber box? You could rejoin the game. Really.”

            Jack looked up suspiciously. “I don’t know…”

            Gavin handed him back his paper. “I redid today’s work for you. You’d written the same sentence over three times. Now it’s all correct.”

            “Thanks, Gavin! Hey, I’ll see you after school.”

            Mr. Dessler was pleased. The students all seemed engaged in discussing and correcting their work on the bell-ringer. They hadn’t really joined in the all-class discussion much, but maybe this was better. This next transition was crucial. He needed to be sure they were engaged. He jumped up on his desk at the front of the class, carefully avoided treading on his laptop, and shouted, “Now it’s time to get back into our story—‘The Dangling Modifier’!”

            Nobody moved.

            “Come on—get it out. Remember yesterday—it’s the fantasy story about the wizard. He goes around changing things people want changed in their lives to make money.”

            Stuart raised his hand, pushing his glasses up his nose. “Isn’t that sentence, itself, a dangling modifier?” he asked.

            “Actually—I think it’s just misplaced,” said Paisley, the girl with the lacy medieval-looking top who sat up front and was forever writing in her leather bound journal.

            Mr. Dessler didn’t have time for this debate. “We don’t have time for this debate,” he said. “It’s not part of our Learning Target for today.” He pointed at the board, where he had written Identify, discuss, and analyze the use of point of view in fiction under a large hunter’s target sign which read TODAY’S LEARNING TARGET.

            He continued. “As we left off yesterday—the wizard, Vari, met another wizard, Rob, who stole his magical staff. Rob grabbed the staff from him near the edge of the Crazy Cliffs and then pushed Vari over the edge.  Having pushed Vari over the edge, the staff belonged to Rob now.”

            “Now that’s a dangling modifier,” said Paisley, looking up from her leather notebook. “It sounds like the staff is doing the pushing.”

            “NOT part of our target!!” Mr. Dessler said, hyper-cheerfully, pointing decisively at the target poster again. He idly wondered if the bracelets could sense whether engagement was focused on the learning target or not, but then went back to reading the story. It turned out that although Rob felt he had triumphed, Vari was hanging from a thin vine on the underside of an overhang. He struggled to climb upward before the vine broke… How can they not be engaged in this? Mr. Dessler thought. I bet those bracelets are giving off all kinds of engaged data-bits! But then he noticed Paisley. She wasn’t reading along. Why?

            Paisley was so sick of that stupid Learning Target poster, she wished she could bring in her medieval crossbow and shoot a few dozen arrows into it and rip it to shreds. She knew about modifiers, and if he was going to shoot her down for knowing stuff, she’d just tune him out. Besides, she’d finished the story within ten minutes of him handing it out two days ago. They were “close-reading” it, looking for all the evidence of the importance of point of view. She got point of view. Of course, did anyone notice, or did Dessler encourage them to notice, the fact that the whole story was a freaking play on words? That as the wizard who transformed objects hung from the cliff, he was a dangling modifier? Did Dessler himself even get that? She flipped open her leather notebook and began rewriting one of her sonnets with her calligraphy pens, using her favorite font, A Gothique Time.

            Suddenly, a large pointer finger was on her desk, pointing at the workbook pages on which the story appeared. Dessler. He picked up the pages, turned to the proper place in the story, which made him stop reading aloud briefly, and then slammed the story over her leather notebook.

            In the time it took for him to get her back on task, several people had started to talk again. “Quiet down, please! Follow along!”

            Paisley hated this freaking class. As soon as Dessler was halfway across the room, she started writing in her poetry book again.

            The students were starting to slip away, Dessler realized. They were glancing around the room again. The bracelets were going to start sending “disengaged data” out to the observer. He needed to do something, anything to get them back on task!

            “Hey—let’s role play!” he yelled, suddenly stopping midsentence in the story and snapping the whole class to attention. Enthusiastic yelling—that nearly always engaged everyone, at least for a few seconds. “I need a couple of volunteers!”

            No one volunteered.

            “Extra credit!”

            A few hands went up.

            “Okay, you Suzie, and you Randy!” Suzie and Randy came up to the front of the room. Suzie, who was usually outgoing, suddenly seemed reticent and awkward. And Randy, now that he was up here, seemed to regret his decision. “Okay—Suzie, you play Rob. You stand up on my desk! And Jack, you’ll be Vari. So you’ll get over here on the side of my desk and act like you’re hanging from a cliff. This broom will be the wizard’s staff!”

            They assumed the positions he indicated. Now the class was sitting up and taking notice. Good! They were engaged. Stuart, his ideal student, was sitting up straight and attentive as always. Stuart was so dependable. But that’s not what made Mr. Dessler that happiest—it was some of the other students in the room.

            Suzie, standing up on the table, now seemed to be having the time of her life, giggling and laughing and twisting her hair around her finger. Jack was clowning it up as he played his part, as if trying to really show off what a good sport he was. Randy, over there in the corner, never seemed to pay attention, but now he seemed engaged beyond belief! He was sitting straight up, leaning forward, all focus and attention. And Quincy, over by door—he was usually zoned out, but he seemed very, very engaged, looking at the role-playing wizards intently, even hungrily, as if he couldn’t wait to see how the story played out.

            Stuart sat upright, as he’d been trained to do by his parents (Always look like you’re interested!) staring at the ridiculous spectacle in front of him. Suzie and Jack as wizards arguing over a broom? It was beyond ludicrous. And Jack couldn’t even dangle, not from a teacher’s desk—he had his legs splayed out behind him and looked utterly buffoonish. All Stuart wanted to know was how watching this stupid production would affect his grade. All these attempts to entertain him were a waste of his time. He wanted this nonsense to be over to he could finish the assignment and get another A.

            Suzie had never been so close to Jack. She giggled and flirted and tried her best to show off for him. Maybe he’d finally notice her! She looked down at him as he hung from the edge of the desk, his blue eyes squinting with laughter, making his lashes look even darker and more beautiful. Now they would have something to talk about—starring together in this skit! Now she would be able to talk to him on the way to lunch!

Jack was getting laughs. The longer he stretched out his body away from the desk, the louder he screamed in “terror” of falling to his death the more the class loved it. What was this story about? Who cared? Last night’s missed basket was now a distant memory.

Gavin stared at Jack, realizing what an idiot he was. He began to plot exactly how would steal Jack’s powers, and leave him to be devoured by zombie-spiders. He smiled.

            Quincy stared toward the front of the room where the story was being played out, his focus intense, seeing right past the actors in this wizard’s drama—to the clock. It was almost time for lunch. He was so hungry. His mom was swinging by with some Boo-Boo Burger at the parent pickup loop which just happened to be on the way to the cafeteria. He couldn’t wait to get his hands on that triple bacon deluxe cheddar burger. He stared even harder at the clock—willing the hands to move faster.

            Randy had never seen a more gorgeous sight. He leaned forward, taking it in. Suzie was up on the desk, her every curve on display like never before. She was talking to the broom she was holding for some reason, reading from the workbook pages. What was that about? It didn’t matter. She could talk to a vacuum cleaner or a Swiffer for all he cared. As long as she kept swaying her hips like that. Now she was bending over, pretending to argue with Randy. What a view! Man, I should have volunteered! he thought. What a view I’d have then! He leaned forward further, hoping to hide just how engaged he had become.

Mr. Dessler relaxed. They finished reading the story, Suzie and Jack took a bow, and everyone applauded enthusiastically—especially Randy, he noticed. They were so very engaged in his class! The data from the bracelets would show it!

            But could he do it again tomorrow?

He realized that he’d better focus on their Learning Target again.

“Why is the point of view important here?”

Stuart raised his hand. “Because of the third person omniscient point of view, as readers, we are aware of the dramatic irony, that Rob doesn’t realize Vari is still alive. Sometimes in life, we aren’t aware of what’s really going on, and…”

“Stick with the text, Stuart! We’re staying in the four corners of the text!”

Stuart slouched for just  a moment, remembered himself an sat up. And then he glowered.

            In a dark room behind the principal’s office, Gabe Garceau looked up from this computer screen to Ms. Blake, the principal.

            “So tell me Mr. Garceau,” the principal said, watching the data flow in from the screen. “How is Mr. Dessler doing at engaging the students?”

            “Overall, great. The data readings are still coming in, but we have some very engaged students. Quincy’s bracelet is pinging nicely—he’s very, very intensely interested in the lesson. Paisley’s brain seems to be working very hard.  Same with Jack and Suzie and Gavin. Randy is engaged off the chart—just completely into what they’re doing in there.

            “Anyone unengaged?”

            “That kid Stuart. He’s practically brain dead.”

            “Odd,” said the principal. “He’s got the highest GPA in the school.”

            “Well—he’s not engaged.”

            “But everyone else is?” asked the principal.

            “Everyone in that class is totally engaged with what’s going on in class. He’s got them hooked.”
            Mrs. Blake looked at the video feed coming from the room and made the decision to buy bracelets for every student, and cameras for every room. With video feeds and with data rolling in from bracelets all over the school, she would be practically… omniscient.

            Before, she could tell if students looked engaged in a class. Now she would know for sure if they really were engaged.

            The data never lied.