Last weekend, the Center of Math team went to the NCTM conference held in Boston. At the conference, we met hundreds of math teachers from the United States and abroad (the first person to stop by our booth was visiting from Perth, Australia!), and one of our interns, Zach, jumped at the opportunity to interview a few of the visitors.

Here's his interview with Scott Kelley, a math instructor at the Texas School for the Blind and Visually Impaired. Read on to find out about how the blind "see" math problems, how his students use technology, and what simple advice Mr. Kelley offers to all students...

Zach talking math with Scott Kelley at NCTM |

**Z:**And what drove you to work in that field?

**SK:**Well it was actually accidental. I’ve been teaching math in one form or another for about thirty years, and a friend of mine kept saying “we need substitutes at the school,” and I was like, “I don’t know anything about teaching to the blind, and I’m not sure I want to teach public school.” But I found out that as a substitute I could get state benefits and that was far cheaper than the self-employment benefits I was earning and paying for anyways. I said, “Well I can sub a few days a month,” and I absolutely fell in love with the school, and the students, and the philosophy, and it is the best job I have ever had in my life.

**Z:**What is the philosophy at the school?

**SK:**Well we have a very small residential school. There are about 9,000 visually impaired students in Texas, but we have fewer than 200 of them on campus at any given time. And our real purpose is to serve the students who cannot be effectively served by their own school district. So we’re trying very much to teach our students how to be independent students. We only want to keep them for a couple of years, teach them how to be a blind student, and then send them home to their home school district, where once again they can be home, among their friends, and, well, learning independently.

**Z:**In your opinion, what is the biggest struggle of being a blind student? Is there an obvious answer?

SK: Let me narrow your question down a lot more. I teach
high school mathematics, which is grades nine through twelve. And so much of
current mathematics is designed to use visual representation to teach concepts.
And it builds on ideas that your sighted student would just pick up
observationally. So we almost never get a student in our classes who doesn’t
already have huge holes in spatial reasoning. So it’s very hard to go back and
say, “You didn’t learn fractions,” because almost everything we do to teach
fractions builds off the spatial understanding of fractions, and builds off of
what you may have already learned just by observing the world around you.

**Z:**And before the interview you mentioned to me Nemeth Braille, could you explain that for our viewers?

**SK:**Sure, well as you know the blind read through Braille code, which is raised dots that they feel with their fingers. But there is a sub-code of Braille called the Nemeth code, which was created by Dr. Abraham Nemeth, that is designed to work with math. It recreates the symbols that you would use in math and science, and it is also designed to work smoothly with the interaction of letters and numbers. For example, if you were trying to write a polynomial (

*ax^2+bx+c*) in standard literary Braille, it would be

*very*cumbersome and it would literally interfere with the thinking and learning of math. So Dr. Nemeth came up with a way of presenting that code.

**Z:**What was it like learning Braille? How long did it take, was it as challenging as say learning a regular foreign language?

**SK:**It’s not, because Braille is English. It’s more like learning a new alphabet. It doesn’t have its own syntax and its own vocabulary.

**Z:**How is technology helping the blind in education?

**SK:**It would surprise you, I think to see just how many students are using tablets and smartphones in our classrooms. And I don’t just mean the low-vision students that are taking advantage of the ability to zoom up any picture. We have blind students who are using iPhones, iPads and similar devices because so many of them have built into them voiceovers, screen readers; we’re moving more towards haptic feedback with vibrations and movements. And I can’t wait for the technology to get to where we can create tactile feedback. For example, image a pad where you can take a digital file and it would raise those pins directly under your fingers and it could create any Braille map you wanted.

**Z:**So what drew you personally to math even before you started working for the school of the blind?

**SK:**You know, I don’t know. I’ve been a math geek for my whole life, and when I started college I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew two things: one of them was that I didn’t want to be a teacher! And my freshman year in honors calculus taught me that I didn’t want to be a mathematician. I looked around the classroom and I thought, if this is what mathematicians are then that’s not me. Then a couple of years into school I realized that I had been making all of my money tutoring math, and that I’d taken a math course every single semester as a liberal arts undetermined major; maybe I’m really a math guy after all!

**Z:**Do you have any words of encouragement for younger math students?

**SK:**Well yeah! Don’t be afraid to fail. I see entirely too many students who are unwilling to start math a math problem, or a math challenge, because they’re afraid they aren’t going to get the right answer. But we learn so much more from wrong answers than anything else, and just the process of how you got the wrong answer. Don’t be afraid to play with it, don’t be afraid to try , don’t be afraid to fail, because it’s not failure. It was just your first guess, and your second attempt will be better.

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Thank you so much for chatting with us, Mr. Kelley! It was great to learn about what you do, and it was so exciting to learn about math education from a completely new perspective.

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