Building an Anti-Racist Math Program

My school’s math department has been working hard to articulate a vision for an anti-racist math program and to take action to realize that vision. I’m grateful to our talented communications department for highlighting this ongoing work!


As a study of quantity, structure, space, and change, mathematics might not be top of mind as a discipline in need of an anti-racist lens. However, from the origin of the number system we use today to the mathematicians who are studied and revered, elements of white-washing and exclusion can be found throughout the field. 

Packer’s mathematics department has been exploring ways to address race and equity in both its curriculum and its teaching practices. This is a reflection of the teachers’ own interests, as well as a response to Upper School students’ call this past summer for the re-evaluation of curriculum throughout the division.

“There’s a hunger for how math can be used to make the world a more equitable space, how it can be used to understand racism and other dynamics of oppression and how it can be used…as a tool for social justice,” said Interim Upper School Math Department Head Tom James. 

Last spring, the math department held an anti-racist math teaching forum, where they identified issues of racial inequity and pulled together a collection of anti-racist resources. The group has been working to articulate a vision for what anti-bias and anti-racism looks like in their department. While the group has addressed gender bias in the past, Tom said, “it’s important to focus anti-bias work on race specifically because that’s an area of growth for us and something that needs to be named explicitly.”

The teachers’ work, coupled with the feedback shared by the student-led Change Committee, has brought noticeable changes to what is taught in Upper School math classes and how. The department employs a “journey partners” model to support educators in this work. In pairs or trios, math teachers work together to develop and implement anti-racist curriculum changes in their respective classes. Through regular check-ins, the partners serve as sounding boards for new ideas and as accountability buddies in the process of unlearning racism and bias. …

One noteworthy focus is the way in which teachers are attempting to shape classroom culture. While collaboration is common in other disciplines, Tom said students sometimes approach math with a strong focus on personal rather than collective understanding—a mindset that is prevalent in dominant culture. …

“A lot of teachers in our department are very deliberate about emphasizing really strong collaboration, teaching those skills explicitly,” said Tom. “[They’re] sending the message very directly that [math] class is not just about you being in it for yourself and your own understanding, but actually about building collective understanding.” …

In Tom’s Advanced Algebra II and AT Symmetry and Transformations courses, he is working to humanize mathematics by having students read stories about the professional journeys of mathematicians across identifiers. “It’s important to us that we’re not tokenizing mathematicians of color, so we’ve looked at female mathematicians, LBGTQ+ mathematicians, mathematicians of color, of a number of different backgrounds,” said Tom. Classroom discussions explore the positive and negative forces these professionals have faced and how those same forces show up in Packer’s classrooms. 

These examples represent just some of the immediate ways in which the mathematics department has answered the call to become anti-racist. On-going efforts will include additional shaping of the curriculum as well as further exploration about how math is taught, how work is graded, and how to achieve proportional representation across course levels. The goal of this work is to create an inclusive and supportive learning environment so that all students will be equally engaged in the study of mathematics.

“We really want students to understand that acquiring mathematical knowledge and expertise is in itself an act of personal and collective liberation,” said Tom. “These are the tools you need in order to both understand and come to terms with [the idea that] society is not the way we want it to be and to be able to make a plan toward building a more equitable and just society.”