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IMPACT Spotlight: Building an Anti-Racist Math Curriculum

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 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.”

“Despite the fact that many of the methodologies and systems and conventions that we subscribe to in modern math were decided upon mostly by white, European men, the ideas themselves come from civilizations of indigenous people and people of color.” 

— Cameron Lemley, US Math Teacher

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. 

Changing Classroom Culture

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.”

Creating More Inclusive Curriculum

The department is striving to disrupt the notion of mathematics as a discipline with white, European roots. “Despite the fact that many of the methodologies and systems and conventions that we subscribe to in modern math were decided upon mostly by white, European men, the ideas themselves even down to numbers — the basis of mathematics — are inherently non-white ideas, many coming from civilizations of indigenous people and people of color.” said Cameron Lemley, whose Advanced Math Applications course includes the examination of number systems and algorithms from ancient civilizations, including ancient China, the Mayan Empire, the Babylonian civilizations, and ancient Egypt. “A lot of my students were healthily surprised that the numerals that we subscribe to are not European in any sense.” 

In Danielle Ross’ Advanced Geometry course, former Packer Art Teacher Ken Rush gave a presentation that illustrated the role of math in art. His talk included an analysis of Packer’s architecture, which is abundant with pointed arches, a design element that has origins in the Middle East and North Africa. For many students, the idea that the design of Packer’s buildings had non-Western influences was a revelation. “A student told me, ‘When I walk around Packer now, I just look at it so differently,” said Danielle. “It helps students look at Packer and painting and math through a different lens — one that’s not solely Euclidean.”

Maria Stutt has brought life to the often dry subject of statistics by having her students analyze real-world data. In her Advanced Topics: Statistics course, students have learned about inequities around issues including gerrymandering, Covid-19, unemployment, mass incarceration, and police brutality. 

“I’ve been talking about race in statistics for the last four years, but [the events of] last spring has really empowered me to feel more comfortable,” said Maria. “Now I know it's what’s wanted at the school. Now it’s fully supported and encouraged, and that’s a really wonderful change.”

“Ms. Stutt does an amazing job of always pointing out that statistics is math describing people,” said Bella Pittman ’21. “In class, we frequently use statistics to explore inequities of our world, whether it be race, gender, or class. One example of this is when we discussed the impact of adding the “Are you a citizen?” question to the 2020 U.S. Census. She provided us with numbers about how many people, undocumented immigrants, would be excluded from the Census and the impact of funding loss.”

"What I've learned most from AT Statistics is how to be aware of the ways that statistics are often used as propaganda, manipulated to make us believe something [about] some minority groups when most times there is a reality behind the numbers that are presented to us,” said Khaja Daniel ’21. “I'm so grateful that I am in a class that has made me aware of the problem and provided me with ways to analyze statistics that I see so that I am working towards looking at the world with anti-racist eyes, even as a black girl."

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. 

The Long-Term Goal

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.”

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