Interview with Elena Alexandrovna Kuznetsova

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Elena Alexandrovna Kuznetsova is a mathematics teacher at a Moscow middle school. She works with children who have very poor vision that cannot be corrected. These children study in a regular school, and thanks to Elena Alexandrovna, their poor vision does not prevent them from mastering the standard mathematics curriculum.

Elena Alexandrovna, which children do you work with at school?

I work with visually impaired students, i.e., those with a vision sharpness of minus 16, which is often accompanied by astigmatism. Unfortunately, such vision cannot be corrected, and, for example, in Germany, this is also a problem for teachers in schools. The school where I teach mathematics is a regular Moscow school, where a class can have up to 30 students, and children with a vision of minus 16 are not such a rarity among them.

Who or what influenced your choice to teach visually impaired children?

I can definitely say that, unfortunately, there was a blind person in my family – it was my aunt. My grandmother, her mother, managed to give her a full education; my aunt finished school and then worked all her life at a confectionery factory, gluing boxes for cakes. Such work suited her at that time, both in terms of health and education. That is why I can very well understand how a blind person feels; I am very familiar with this.

Elena Alexandrovna, where did you study? Was it a special institute?

I graduated from a pedagogical institute, which 35 years ago was called the Lenin Pedagogical Institute. It was the mathematics department, and right after graduating, I started working as a mathematics teacher. I have been teaching for over 30 years now.

Was the education you received at the Lenin Pedagogical Institute sufficient to teach visually impaired children?

No, of course not. Back then, there were specialized schools for blind and visually impaired children, and those who wanted to teach there received additional training. For those who weren’t planning to work there, there was nothing like that.

When Moscow’s specialized schools began merging with regular middle schools, that’s when I had to learn to work with children with inclusion, in my case, visually impaired children.

What happened when the schools with such different students started merging?

I’ll say right away that kindergartens for blind and visually impaired children remained, but the schools were not so lucky. Unfortunately, the school system for teaching children with inclusion in general and blindness in particular was destroyed. We had to relearn how to work with blind and visually impaired students, practically piecing together the experience that had been accumulated over several decades. I actively engaged in this work because I had something to share, to tell what is not taught, what is learned through personal experience with a close person.

I intuitively understand how to explain a particular problem or theorem to children with poor vision, knowing that they need a different kind of visualization than what is currently used in schools. For instance, an electronic board is not very suitable for teaching visually impaired children to understand formulas or solve geometric problems. For these children, it is important to develop hearing, memory, and fine motor skills, the main helper in learning mathematics. None of this is taught anywhere, and the teacher needs to understand how to do it best, what to say, and how to develop tactility.

You need to understand what to do so that the child hears and understands you, especially a child with poor vision who studies in a regular school where little is adapted for them.

Do all students with poor vision manage to finish middle school?

Visually impaired students at our school receive secondary education on par with others; they graduate from school like all other children. But to ensure they graduate, it takes more effort and diligence than with typical children.

I was struck by your articles that you place great importance on fine motor skills. I always thought that fine motor skills stay with us even after we stop practicing them. Why is fine motor so important?

There’s a saying, I think from Confucius: “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember.” For example, how do you explain the cross-section of a rectangular parallelepiped to a student? I can do it on the board, show it with a wave of my hand, but hardly all children with -16 vision will see it, so it turns out that I need to develop didactic material specifically for them.

Now, I already know many such techniques and can explain what a section looks like. For this, you can use matches or counting sticks so that the visually impaired student can hold the structure in their hands. Understand how it is arranged, where the plane will pass, and at the same time not tire their already weak vision because fatigue is relieved by fine motor skills while creating the object of the task.

There is another technique or method of working with visually impaired students – using mnemonic techniques. For example, explaining the multiplication of a plus by a minus for visually impaired children is very suitable for mnemonics, and it suits other children too.

But how much time do you spend finding such techniques, testing them, and starting to use them in the classroom?

 It used to be hard and took a lot of time to develop these tricks. It was also necessary to reach the student and explain so that they fully understood you. Now it’s easier for me; I have accumulated many such tricks, and I use them, but I still prepare for the lesson, not for half an hour, but more.

For example, in the sixth grade, we cover positive and negative numbers. Mnemonic techniques help explain what this is, and I use analogies, for instance, to explain how to solve an equation with two variables.

Elena Alexandrovna, are there any old tasks in modern math programs?

Yes, they remain, and the explanation of the essence of the tasks is absolutely the same for everyone. For solving such tasks, no special tricks are required, and it is unlikely that anyone will find such tricks somewhere.

Tasks related to motion are more complex, but here too, I use imagination, which everyone has, no matter what your vision is. I tell students, imagine you are standing on a platform watching trains pass by you. If the trains go in the same direction, parallel, then we add, and if in the opposite direction, then we subtract, that’s all.

Are there similar techniques for studying calculus in high school? What can be used here?

The basics of calculus start with the study of sequences, and we covered them in the ninth grade, as they say in school; now we will begin studying limits. It will be difficult, more challenging than with sequences, and I don’t even know how we will manage with limits, but something will definitely be figured out.

Studying functions was easier because if it increases, we go up the hill, and if it decreases, we go down the hill. In short, something will be figured out.

Elena Alexandrovna, what besides hearing helps in teaching visually impaired children? Do modern teaching tools suit them?

Memory helps, auditory memory, which needs to be trained like general memory. As for modern tools, such as an electronic board, they are not all suitable for children with -16 vision. I can’t constantly use an electronic board for such children because the pixels, in my opinion, tire the eyes, and if a student’s vision is -16, then traditional boards are more suitable for them.

But don’t think that visually impaired children in middle school are completely inaccessible to modern gadgets. They have tablets where you can display the lesson; they have special programs on the tablet that allow them to draw and understand what is being said in the lesson. There is a computer magnifier they use and adjust it for themselves, considering their needs.

But how do children with such poor vision take exams?

Children with poor vision can work with text differently than others, but they can do it. For them, the exam material is printed in large font, and they can work with a tutor who records their answers. All that needs to be done is to notify in advance that a package of documents is needed for students with a vision sharpness of minus 16.

Elena Alexandrovna, why is it so important for students with poor vision to study mathematics? Can they manage without it?

Yes, such a child/student has life limitations, like every visually impaired child. For example, they should not jump from heights or watch movies on a big screen, not run, but the child’s intellect is preserved, and they need mathematics.

Mathematics organizes the mind; it is the mother of intellect because everything in our life is strung on mathematics.

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