My Ninety-Two-Year-Old Mother Takes on Voice-to-Text Transcription

My ninety-two-year-old mom has been wanting to write her story.

“I remember things no one else knows,” she told me. “And I want to preserve these memories before they’re lost forever.”

But she’s been plagued with trouble. Her hands hurt when she writes with a pen. And when she types on a computer, her documents somehow disappear. So her daily story-writing sessions had been fraught—until she discovered voice-to-text transcription.

“All I have to do is talk to this microphone,” she said, pointing to an icon on her laptop. “And the computer does the rest.”

This reminded me of something I had never told my mother. Being a quirky kind of a kid, I had early-on developed a sense that it was best to hide some of my strangest ideas. So my parents didn’t know about my story-telling sessions in the fruit cellar every evening after supper dishes.

Impressed with the new television sets and Etch-a-Sketch toys and audio cassettes, I was convinced someone would soon invent a wall-reading machine, a device that could scan walls and retrieve every word the wall had ever “heard.”

And sure that I was living in unusual times, I thought I’d help future historians by documenting these times. So every evening, I sat on an upturned crate in the fruit cellar and talked to the wall—about war and assassinations and the space race and civil rights marches. I also explained what I missed from the mountains of Western Maryland and what I found strange in the city—the faded stars and sirens and rushing traffic and big schools and people who talked all sorts of ways.

Earlier this year I drove back to that childhood house in Flint, Michigan. I sat in my parked car and wished I had a newly-invented wall-reading machine to take down the cellar steps. And though I didn’t know what kind of nonsense I had spoken to those walls, I came to a better understanding of why I had spent so much time talking to them. I was doing then what my mom is doing now—trying to make sense of a life and then share that sense with others.

The Casselman Inn: Then; Now

“Come home.”

This is what my grandma said to me, often. And this usually meant we stayed at her historic inn on Route 40 in Grantsville, Maryland. Built in 1842, the Casselman had served the stage coaches, covered wagons, drovers, and horseback riders who made their way long the National Trail to cross the Appalachian Mountains. But when my grandparents owned the Casselman, tourists and locals drove there to eat Amish-style fare in the restaurant or to sleep in a vintage, high-back bed.

When I came home, first with my parents from Flint, Michigan, and later with my husband and children from Ohio, and still later with my grandchildren, we slept in Casselman beds and ate restaurant meals of chicken, homemade bread slathered with apple butter, and shoofly pie.

The Casselman gave us and our many cousins a base. We’d eat there and sleep. But during the day we’d visit the farm to tramp in the woods, fish in the river, play in the haymow, and roast hot dogs over a fire. No matter where we lived, we had a place back in Grantsville.

Now our family no longer owns the Casselman. My grandfather died. And then my grandmother. And several years ago my father and his siblings sold the historic inn to another branch of the family—to my second cousin Elissa and her husband Ben.

To hear their story and to see historic and recent pictures of the inn go here. You’ll meet my grandparents and their children. And you’ll see why our branch of the family is delighted with Elissa and Ben.

From Sap to Syrup

Writing is like boiling down maple sap.

One of my favorite childhood haunts was the sugar camp. All winter I’d wait for sugaring. Wet winds would blow in from Lake Erie and the Ohio Valley, and when they tried to climb the mountains of Western Maryland, where I lived, those mountains would wring them out like a rag, turning the moisture into snow at an average of a hundred inches per year.

But I could tell winter was wearing down when my grandpa started tinkering around in the sugar camp. He’d gather the spiles that pierced the trees and wash the keelers that gathered the sap, and fire up the evaporator. Soon I’d trail along under the maples as he harvested the first crop of the year.

Sap, I discovered when I sneaked a bit of the clear liquid, tastes almost like water. The sweetness had to be in there somewhere. I knew this from the maple candy my grandma made by pouring hot maple syrup on a clean bed of snow, the taffy we pulled with buttered hands until it turned satiny and held its shape, and the golden river of syrup I mopped up with my pancakes.

But between the sap and the syrup was a whole lot of boiling down. It takes, after all, forty gallons of sap to produce one gallon of syrup. So from the vats of bubbling sap, clouds of steam rose into the chilly spring air, taking away what wasn’t wanted and leaving what was sweet.

That image of the vanishing steam has helped me write. My first drafts, I’ve found, are more like sap than like syrup—full of what isn’t wanted. I’ve learned to be wary of every word—to ask, “What are you doing here?” Actually, leery of each syllable. I’ve learned to distrust words that end in tion and ance and ious. Good writing, I’ve come to see, doesn’t correlate with long words.

Fire up the evaporator, I tell myself, boil it down.

A Clever Horse Teaches Me a Lesson

If you asked Clever Hans the answer to 12 + 12, he’d tap his hoof 24 times. And if the problem was written on the chalkboard, he’d answer that, too. I had never heard of this counting horse. But during a series of two-minute mini lectures on our family Christmas Zoom call, my niece Emilie introduced us to him.

His owner, Herr Wilhelm von Osten, loved horses and taught math. In Clever Hans, he brought these two passions together. Using teaching techniques and lots of carrots and bread, von Osten taught his horse to add, subtract, multiply, and divide, to change common fractions to decimals, to understand the value of German coins, and to tell time on a watch.

And Clever Hans could spell. By tapping the alphabet—once for A, twice for B, and so on—he could stomp out words. When he saw a painting familiar to him, he could spell the name of the artist. Hearing a tune, he’d hoof off the composer. He recognized colors and playing cards and spelled out their names. And he knew the calendar of the whole year.

Von Osten took the show on the road. But not to make money. Demonstrations were free. And they were sensational, attracting attention across Germany and world-wide.

In 1904, Clever Hans appeared before the German Board of Education. After studying the horse for over a year, these educators concluded there was no hoax. Von Osten had convinced them that people didn’t give animals enough credit for their intelligence.

But then psychologists had a go at Clever Hans. They confirmed that the horse almost always gave the right answer not only when von Osten asked the question, but also when others asked. But when the horse wore blinders, something interesting happened. If Clever Hans could see the questioner, he’d get it right. If the questioner was out of sight, though, right answers dropped to six percent.

The horse, the psychologists discovered after further study, couldn’t count after all. But what Clever Hans could do was pick up the signals his questioners gave him. When he noticed a raised eyebrow or a shifting foot or a change in breathing, he could tell he was at the right answer and stopped tapping his hoof.

“Maybe Clever Hans couldn’t count,” Emilie said that day on the Zoom call. “Still, he was clever.”

After Emilie’s mini lecture I got to thinking about what we in education call the hidden curricula.

These are the lessons we teach from underlying tones.

“Trigonometry?” a guidance counselor may say with a raised eyebrow to a female signing up for classes in her junior year. And she gets the message—girls and math don’t match.

“When you go to college,” a teacher may say in a matter of fact tone to one student and not to another, even if their academic profiles are similar. And these students catch the expectation.

When I taught at a state prison, I heard a recurring statement from my inmate students, one that caused me pain each time I heard it: My teachers didn’t believe in me.

I’ve never known a teacher to say this to a student, not outright. But I take my place among the teachers who have sent powerful messages—with eyes and words and silence—that hurt rather than helped.

Students, after all, constantly look to us for cues about who they are and how to work out their lives.

Thank you, Emilie, for sending my mind this way!

What Rhymes with Covid—at Least a Little?

Most people would agree that the 2020-2021 school year has been like no other. And they’d be right. When schools opened this last fall, more than half of the students in the U.S. studied virtually, with only 25 percent attending in person every day. And all year, even those attending in-person have never known when they will, once again, go remote.

But the remote learning of this pandemic, though enormous in scope, isn’t new. So maybe Mark Twain got it right: History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

You can read about long-ago distance learning—reaching students by postcard and through the first correspondence school in the United States and by sending lessons to homes during whooping cough outbreak in 1906.

But perhaps the closest history has rhymed with Covid-19-Zoom teaching is the Radio School of 1937. Polio, a contagious, rapidly spreading virus, with no known cure or vaccine, was leaving thousands crippled or paralyzed or dead. And parents were keeping their children safe at home—away from pools and parks and schools.

Alarmed about losing instructional time, Chicago schools turned to technology. Radio was still new enough to be held with some suspicion. Would radio make people stop reading? Stop talking with each other? How would kids who grew up with radio be different than earlier generations?

But radio also brought wonder. At the flick of a wrist a person could listen to a symphony, a baseball game, a sermon, a President’s speech, and now . . .  a lesson sent right to the ears of homebound kids.

Teachers stepped up, creating lessons that were informative and entertaining. They hosted, for example, guest stars like British globetrotter Carveth Wells, who told students about his trips to India and Africa.

But the Radio School led to disparity. Some kids lived in homes with no radios, while other homes had three or four, one for each kid. Schedules and assignments were printed in the daily newspaper, which some kids never saw. And for some, the one-size-fits-all lessons didn’t fit.

Still, the Radio School made a difference. Though it lasted only weeks, not months, it helped reshape both radio and learning—opening ways for radios to come to school and for educational programs to play on radio.

And if Mark Twain is right about the rhyming, I’m hoping that this pandemic year, which took so much from us, will leave a gift or two behind.

Beyond the House of Mirrors

In some ways, they can’t help it. Given the mismatch in their brains, it’s no wonder middle school kids often fail to see beyond themselves. At this age, the emotional brain has come into full swing well before the prefrontal cortex has matured.  And so they struggle to control their selfish impulses, even when they know better.

It’s as if they live in one of those houses of mirrors you find at a fair. Caught in reflecting mazes, they turn down passageway after passageway looking for a way out. But everywhere they turn, they run into their own image. At every exit, they are blocked by themselves.

But even with all this constant turning in, I love middle school brains. Being nowhere near fully baked, they’re still formable. What I do matters. I can actually help them connect their emotional and logical brains. And as these parts of the brain begin to work in greater tandem, students become better able to do more than peering into mirrors.

Here are some windows you can offer instead:

  • Vicarious living—Tangled in adolescent angst, middle school kids often have faint empathy for those around them. But I’ve seen tears run from the eyes of tough kids as they watched a movie or read a book. A step away from their own lives, they can muster up compassion. And these second-hand encounters offer kids a chance to form templates they can use back where they live.
  • Purpose—Kids are willing to look beyond themselves when their strengths are tapped. “I’d like your help,” I’d say to a kid. “I’ve been trying to find a way to give Kato some extra practice in English. I’ve noticed that you’re good at talking with people. Could you . . .?” Almost always middle school kids step up to shoulder tapping.
  • Travel—Every time I’ve traveled—to Ethiopia or Thailand or the Pacific Ocean or inner-city Flint, Michigan, or upstate New York—I learn, once again, that my small Midwest town isn’t the center of the universe. Not being able to take my students with me, I followed Emily Dickinson’s lead: There is no frigate like a book to take us lands away. With literature, I took them both around the world and back in time.

Looking through windows can become a habit. But middle school kids need frequent and repeated invitations to turn from self-gazing to look out. And actually, so do I. Even at sixty-five, I find myself reverting back to my middle school brain, peering into a mirror instead of looking out windows, even when I know better.

Pandemics, Prisons, Political Tensions—and the Brain

As the pandemic surged and political tensions mounted, I thought of Jon.

“You’ve got to apply yourself,” I told him once.

And he just looked back at me through fogged-over eyes, like he could barely make me out.

He was a smart kid with a boatload of challenges. At lunch, he’d head to the corner window, the one that faced the state prison across the fields. And he’d stand there and stare. If yearning could unlock doors, his dad would have walked across the prison fields, through the school yard, and up the steps to my classroom. At home, Jon held it together for a falling-apart mom—stretching money, running herd on younger brothers and hiding his own angst to protect his family.

“Don’t ruin your future,” I’d tell Jon, “by messing up in school.”

And he’d try. But he couldn’t concentrate. Even what he already knew seemed to mysteriously vanish, as if someone had reached into his head and plucked it out.

This thief, I was to discover later in graduate classes was stress. Under pressure, the brain has trouble processing incoming information and retrieving what’s already known. Stress hijacks the brain, putting it into survival mode.

Jon’s incarcerated dad and falling-apart mom, I can see now, were right there in the school room with him. And he was already applying himself—trying to find a way through troubles more compelling than solving a quadratic equation. No wonder he blanked out on the Zero Product Rule.

In the last weeks, as the pandemic has closed in on more people I love and political tensions pulled people apart, my focus derailed. I stared at blank screens that should have been filled with words and sat in meetings with no fresh ideas.

And I thought of Jon—wishing that I hadn’t parroted all those pat answers, that I had walked over to that corner window and just stood there with him in silence, mourning and exuding mercy.

A Tribute to Alvina

Alvina, my first teacher and the star of my book Yoder School, has died. She turned ninety-five on her last birthday, so I’ve known this was coming. Still, in the days since her death, a rippling sadness has stayed with me.

It’s been sixty years since I sat in first grade wanting to be a teacher like Alvina and nearly forty years since I stood in front of my first class of students. As I took class after class on the way to a teaching degree, I measured my other teachers and professors and eventually myself by Alvina. She was my yardstick.

When I heard she was dying, I sent her a note, one that probably arrived too late. Alvina had already known from our conversations and my book that she had been my polestar. What she didn’t know, I wrote in that note, is that young teachers have been writing me.

“What would Alvina do?” they ask about a student who learns faster or struggles more than the rest. How would Alvina teach under the pressure of high-stake tests?

And like them, I’ve often wished I could transplant Alvina. What would have happened if she had come into my middle school classes or into the gifted program or into the state prison school? I often asked myself the same question young teachers are asking—What would Alvina do?

I often didn’t know.

But all along the way, I tried to bring to my students that wide-eyed feeling that kept washing over me in Alvina’s room.

To Alvina, I wrote in the Yoder School book I signed for her, who brought wonder to me.

Alvina is the teacher. I am in the front row with the blue dress.

I Like Spoilers

I like spoilers. Knowing the end from the beginning—this is how I like to enjoy a book or a movie. And a study by Leavitt and Christenfeld, in which they deliberately spoiled stories for people, shows I’m not alone. Others, too, like finding their way to a resolution they already know.

This may be true especially for those of us who are whole-to-part learners. Once we know how the story turns out, its’s easier to get a handle on the details and focus instead on the deeper meaning. The story becomes like a maze, where you put your pencil at the start and your eye on the end and enjoy the twists and turns along the way.

This, in fact, is how I learned to enjoy Shakespeare.

“I’d like to propose a project to you,” my professor in a graduate course on leadership said to me. “Read King Henry IV and analyze the dynamics of leadership you find in the play.”

I came close to rolling my eyes, and he noticed my hesitation.

“I’ve got a way you can like Shakespeare,” he said.

And he outlined a sequence that I’ve used with Shakespeare ever since: watch an animation, read a children’s version, watch a full-play video, and then read the actual script.

This works, I found, because, instead of feeling stupid like I always had when I plunged straight into the Bard, I kept feeling smarter and smarter. Shakespeare’s phrasing was still a puzzle to solve. But with this unfolding sequence, I was able to make more connections, notice more patterns. It was like I had the picture on the puzzle box propped in front of me helping me fit the fragments together to create a bigger picture.

“The smarter you feel, the more you like it,” my professor said.

And he was right.

It can still feel a little like cheating, though, like taking a sneak peek at the back of a math textbook and working from the answer key to figure the strategy.

But I’ve discovered that knowing the answer helps me enjoy the problem.