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Ephesus Elementary Celebrates Book "Let's Talk About Race"

For the second year, art teacher Hannah Murphy has developed and taught a school-wide project that culminated in a new Black History Month mural at Ephesus Elementary School (EES). This year the mural ties directly with the ongoing discussions and activities planned for every classroom in the school, an exploration of the much-acclaimed book, “Let’s Talk About Race,” by Julius Lester.

detailed heart EES mural On a recent visit to Murphy’s art room, fifth grade students quietly focused on creating their self-portraits, made up of hearts illustrated with images representing their families, hobbies and passions. Behind the hearts, each student glued a simple half-face, with eyes and nose drawn in the style of the book illustrator, Karen Barbour.

“This book is a great kid-friendly, entry level way to make our students comfortable with talking about race and what it means,” explained Murphy. “Because the story discusses who we are on the outside as well as who we are on the inside, the self portraits reflect who the students are on the outside (their faces) as well as who they are on the inside (their hearts).” Once all of the self-portraits are completed, Murphy will assemble them into a mural to inspire and enlighten the school community.

Each year, the Ephesus Black History Month (BHM) committee develops a calendar of activities and events, often linked to a selected theme. Jennifer Dykes, second grade teaching assistant, said that she and a few colleagues attended the “Understanding Race” traveling exhibit in Durham seven years ago, where “Let’s Talk About Race” was one of the books on display. “Since then, I've used it in the second grade classes I work with, and I’ve been on the look out for a way to give the book a broader audience. It's accessible for all grade levels and lends itself to conversations of varying depths.” When the BHM committee began brainstorming ideas for this month’s theme, “Let’s Talk Race” became the focal point.

Hannah Murphy EES mural Dykes said, “At some point Hannah saw the text and volunteered to do a collaborative art project. This is the second time she has been so generous, and the results always leave us a little awed. Of course we're especially appreciative of the way she willingly brings her collaborative creativity to BHM. I don't know how she consistently gets the students to produce such relevant, high-quality work. It's magical.”

After every class has read the book, teachers lead discussions based on a list of differentiated questions developed by EES counselor Ashley Sherman. One of the primary goals for initiating these discussions is to teach students it doesn’t need to be disturbing or scary to talk about race. As teachers talked to students about their own “stories,” they’ve asked, “How is skin color a part of your story?” One of the final suggested questions from Sherman’s list captures the impact of the simple, powerful text, “The author says that to get to know the real him, you have to get to know all the parts of his story, which includes his race. How can we get to know all the parts of someone’s story?”

“I've been pleasantly surprised by the student's critical thinking about the issues presented in ‘Let's Talk About Race.’ The book has been a great anchor text to initiate frank conversations with students about race and their artwork for the mural,” Murphy said. “I always love the chance to get to know my students better, and this has been a great opportunity to talk with students about who they are and what fills their hearts!”

View the How-to video from Hannah.