2011: Ashley Bryan

W  R  I  T  I  N  G       E   X  E  R  C  I   S  E  S


Also good for “Read Aloud, Think Aloud,” or dialogue/discussion.


Remind students that writing can be a kind of therapy, a safe place to put feelings and thoughts, a safe place to think about things.  Tell them they may write about things that they don’t want anyone else to read, and that is okay. 


1) Talk about the structure of Words to My Life’s Song.  It covers Ashley’s present on some pages, and his past on others.  Photographs, paintings abound; it’s both a picture book and an autobiography.  Have you ever seen a book like this?  Talk about the art form of mosaic, and how Mr. Bryan has made a mosaic of his life—in pictures and in words. 


If you were going to make a mosaic of your life, what would it look like?  What words would you put together to describe your experiences?  


2)  Mr. Bryan talks about all of the places that have defined him and made him who he is—from the Bronx to Maine to Europe to Africa.  What are some of the places that have defined you and made you who you are?  How has each place shaped you?   


3)  The first page of Words to My Life’s Song reads:


“I cannot remember a time when I have not been drawing and painting.  In an early photo of my family, I am sitting on my mother’s lap.  My older brother, Sidney, stands with a bag in his hand.  If you put a paintbrush in my hand, that would best complete the picture.” 


What would you be holding to best complete your own picture?  What is it that you have always done throughout your life? 


4) FOR Beautiful Blackbird:


An Ashley Bryan book for students newer to English.  Examples 4 - 6.  Ask students to look at the pictures in the book and describe what they see.  Encourage them to tell the story in their own words—by looking at the pictures.  Just “read” the pictures and work on oral skills.  Talk about the cut paper style, Ashley’s mother’s scissors, the use of color and collage.   Talk/write about useful objects in their home that belonged to someone they love—objects with personal history and meaning.


5)  Beautiful Blackbird is Ashley Bryan’s adaptation of a tale from the Ila-speaking people of Zambia.  The message of the story is clear: “Black is Beautiful.”  Help students talk about the tale’s universal meaning (appreciating one’s heritage and discovering the beauty within). 


Ask students to talk or write about something they find beautiful that other people don’t.  Or learning to find/see beauty in something/someone they previously didn’t appreciate.   


6)  Discuss folktales and their underlying moral—how folktales teach.  Have students give examples of stories with morals (for example, Pinnochio (don’t tell lies), The Tortoise and the Hare (never give up, despite the odds), The Ugly Duckling (don’t judge people by their exteriors). 


Then ask students to tell a folk tale from their own culture (the American South, an often-told family story, China, Mexico, Somalia, etc).  Talk about how it is important to preserve the folk stories that teach us—as children and adults. 


Ask students to write down/retell in their own words a folk story that was meaningful or important to them when they were children—or something they have passed on to their own children.  2010 Storylines winner Mr. Lee’s crow story is a good example that can be found in the CRW journal. 


7)  After a discussion of art and illustration, take a field-trip to a nearby museum to look at artwork, talk about it, and/or write about it.  Or take a walk to a nearby church to see stained glass.  Or take a walk to a close-by statue or sculpture in a park.  What is the purpose of art?  How does it make people feel?  How is it made?  What is the artist’s life like?  What does it mean to be an artist?  Do artist’s have a responsibility or purpose in society?    


8)  Local History/Life History. Discuss interviews as a written form—in newspapers, on T.V., etc.  Ashley Bryan grew up right near all of us, in the Bronx.  Interview someone from your class or neighborhood or family—someone local.  Write out the interview. Ask questions about their life; ask them to share their story.  Listen, take notes, write out what they say.  


Help students prepare questions (tell the story of growing up in this neighborhood or how they first came to this neighborhood; where were they born?  What is the most important thing they’ve learned in life?).  Interview can be as brief as one or two questions.       


9)  From page 4 of Words to My Life’s Song:


Ashley Bryan was the second of six children.  When he was twelve, three cousins came to live with his family after their mother died.  He writes:


“Yes, it was quite a crowd.  But my mother made our apartment so beautiful that everyone enjoyed visiting.  She loved flowers, and wherever there was light, there was a plant.  Where there was no light, she made colorful crepe paper flowers to brighten the shadowed areas. “


What do you do to make your home beautiful?  Or, what have you done in a home you used to live in to make it beautiful?  Or, what did your mother or other family member do to make your childhood home beautiful or comfortable?   


10) Corresponds to page 4: Write about a childhood memory of your family all together, relaxed and happy.  Could be a moment, or a day, or a holiday, or a meal. 


11)  Corresponds to page 4:  How did you entertain yourself as a kid?   


12)  Corresponds to page 5:  Throughout Words to My Life’s Song, Ashley describes the ocean.  Write about a body of water you know and live near (of have lived near). 


13)  On page 8, Ashley writes about his father’s love for birds and birdcages.  Like Ashley, his father was a collector: 


“My dad loved birds.  Our living room was lined with shelves for birdcages.  At one time I counted over one hundred birds:  canaries, finches, warblers, parakeets.  My mother would say, “If I want any attention around here, I’d have to get into a cage!” 


What do you collect?  Do you have a family member or friend who is a collector?  Write about this.


14) Corresponds to page 8:  Write about something you have waited a long time to receive, something you have worked very hard to get. 


15)  Where were your parents born?  What work did they do?


16)  Ashely tells his parents’ love story.  Tell the love story of someone in your family.  Try to use dialogue to capture their voice.  Discuss quotation marks and punctuation when writing out dialogue.  Look to examples in the book. 


17)  Corresponds to page 15:  Write about a school memory.


18)  Page 20.  Ashely describes a rainbow.  Have you ever seen a rainbow?  Where?  Who were you with when you saw it?  Ashley writes about rainbows:


 “No matter how often I see this, I gasp in wonder, time and time again.” 


What in the natural world always makes you feel wonder?  Thunderstorms?  Birds flying?  Bees buzzing around a flower?  Clouds moving fast in the sky?  Describe.  Try as a poem. 


19)  Corresponds to page 21.  When did society (or a specific individual) tell you that you couldn’t do something?  And who has told you not to give up?  What is it you have been determined to do, despite what other people say, and obstacles that have stood in your way?


20)  On page 21, Ashley writes about going to college:


“I was the only Black in my class—in fact, all through those school years I had always been one of the few Blacks in my classes.” 


Have you ever been the only person “like you?”  When?  Describe the situation.  How did it make you feel? 


21)  On page 22, Ashley describes how his neighborhood, a Bronx community, has changed over time.  He writes about what it was like during his childhood and what it is like now.  How was your hometown changed over the years?  What is different and what is the same? 


22)  What do you think  is the meaning of Ashley making a Black Jesus for the church stained glass window? 


23)  Corresponds to page 24.  Ashley writes that during the Depression, children often made their own toys.  Describe something you have made by hand—a cake, clothing, a table, a car motor, artwork.  Describe your process and the object itself.  Did it come out the way you wanted it to? 


24)  Page 26.  Ashley writes: “The inspiration that comes from collecting things has stayed with me my whole life.  From the child who rescued stray objects from the streets, grew the adult who gathers seashells, driftwood, bones, rocks, and seas glass.”


Have you ever found something on the street or in the woods or on the beach and brought it home?  Describe what you found, where you found it, and what you now use it for.  Talk about recycling.  How and why it is important these days (saves money, helps the environment). 


25)  Have you ever seen promise/possibility/hope in something or someone that had been discarded?  


26)  Discuss what it means to make something beautiful and useful out of what has been discarded. 


27)  Have you been in the army in this country or any other country?  Have you known anyone in the armed forces?  Have you known anyone who has lived through a war?  How were they affected by the war?  What do you think about the fact that Ashley risked his life in war but lived in segregated barracks?  How do you feel about the fact that he kept his drawing materials in his gas mask? 


28)  On page 31, Ashley writes about being at war and how he couldn’t dig a safe foxhole.  He says, “The next day one of my friends enlarged his foxhole and took me in.” 


When has someone helped you in a profound way and/or saved your life?  Physically, emotionally, or metaphorically?  Have you ever saved anyone else’s life? 


29)  On page 35, Ashley describes how his unit was not able to return home from war, like other units, because of segregation on ships; he says there were only a few places for Black soldiers “on each boat’s homeward journey.” 


Write about a time when who you were kept you apart or separate from others. 


30)  When is the first time you remember being aware of racial/ethnic difference?  Describe how old you were and the situation. 


31)  Describe a favorite piece of art.  What does it look like?  How does/did it make you feel to look at it?  Remind students that the piece of art could be something hanging on the wall of their apartment, or in the subway, or spray-painted on a wall, or something they have made—it doesn’t have to be famous or in a museum.   Remind them/encourage them to interpret art and beauty on their own terms.  


32)  On page 36, Ashley writes about the seasons on his little island in Maine.  What are your favorite things about each season in New York?  What does each season mean to you?   Or write the same for a home of your past, not in New York.


33)  Corresponds to page 41.  Write a letter to someone you admire (a musician, painter, sports figure, politician, parent, etc). 


34)  Corresponds to page 42.  When has a door closed for you?  Did it open up again?  (Love, job, recovery from an illness, having a child, making a move to a different town or country, etc).


35)  Talk about determination and how it relates to getting an education.  What did Ashley overcome to get his education, to continue his schooling?  How has he continued on, despite set-backs and obstacles?  What have you overcome to get your education?  How have you continued on, despite set-backs and obstacles?  What obstacles have you encountered throughout your schooling?  Write about this.


36)  On page 54, Ashley writes about returning to the place of his parents’ birth and raising—Antigua.  Write about the first time you went back home to a place you had left.  Did it seem different to you?  How did your homecoming make you feel?  What were the circumstances of your homecoming?  Was it for a happy or sad reason?


37)  Who in your family is a great cook?  Write about a delicious meal you’ve shared with family/friends.


38)  Everybody has a talent, something they are good at.  Cooking, building, listening, working hard, caretaking, painting, singing, plumbing, etc.  What is your talent?  How do you share it with others?  How have you used your talent to help the people in your life? 


39)  Talk about how Ashley makes art from his life—what he finds, and also, what he has experienced.  Talk about making art with words and with material objects. 


40)  Discuss the Ashanti tribe saying that closes the book: 


“This is my story.


Whether it be bitter


or whether it be


sweet, take some of it


elsewhere and let the


rest come back to me.” 


Write about what is both bitter and sweet in your own life story.  Try to balance out the bitter and the sweet.  Try to describe times—even difficult times—when you have overcome, persevered, seen possibility instead of defeat—in yourself or in someone else. 


41)  Read Let it Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals and listen to the songs that go along with it.  And/or What a Wonderful World.


42)  Watch some videos of Ashley or look at photos/videos/websites that describe the Great Depression, WPA, World War II, the Civil Rights Era.  Ask students to discuss and/or write about what they see and hear.  Are there aspects of American history they did not know about?  That surprise them?  That they remember living through?  Or that their parents’ told them about?  How is the present different from the past?  How is it the same? 


M O R E    T I T L E S    B Y   A S H L E Y


Beautiful Blackbird; Ashley Bryan’s ABC of African American Poetry; Beat the Story Drum, Pum-Pum; Lion and the Ostrich Chicks and other African Folk Poems; Let it Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals; All Things Bright and Beautiful; The Night Has Ears (African Proverbs); The Sun is So Quiet (with poems by Nikki Giovanni); Salting the Ocean: 100 Poems by Young Poets (edited with Naomi Shihab Nye); Moon, For What Do You Wait (with poems by Rabindranath Tagore). 


South Asian students (from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan) might be particularly interested in Moon, For What Do You Wait since the poems are written by Tagore.


A  D D  I  T I O N A L    R  E S  O  U  R C  E  S


The Mott Haven Carnegie Branch of the NYPL (the oldest library in the Bronx) has established the Ashley Bryan Children’s Room.  Mr. Bryan painted two large murals at the library, which could be an interesting field trip—especially for students in the Bronx. 


St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church in the Bronx has Ashley’s stained-glass installation.  Another possibility for an interesting field trip.





PBS with Ashley Bryan. “A Good Read” (about 25 minutes):


Reading Rockets, video interview:


Sing to the Sun (google videos; might be easier to access on some computers):


Simon and Schuster recently created a series of brief interviews with Mr. Bryan.  Five of them are available, in small clips, through youtube:;


Excerpt of Ashley reading from BEAUTIFUL BLACKBIRD (lively and fun, Ashley with kids):


A full audiobook of BEAUTIFUL BLACKBIRD (but not read by Ashley):


Suggested movies: 


Two documentaries have been made on Ashley Bryan and his life.  One by National Geographic (1984) and one by American School Publishers: “Meet Ashley Bryan: Storyteller, Artist, Writer” (1992).


Content related movies:


Depression Era: “The Color Purple, “ Charlie Chaplin’s “ City Lights” or “Modern Times,” “Paper Moon,” “Annie,” “Grapes of Wrath.”  History Channel’s “The Great Depression” documentary.  


Photographs by Dorthea Lange and/or Walker Evans, easily found on web.  Also Library of Congress photo archive:


World War II:  “The World at War” – 26 episode British television documentary series.  International coverage of WW II.

“The War”: Documentary on World War II by Ken Burns, focused on the U.S.


Civil Rights Era movies: “Do The Right Thing,” “Get on the Bus,” “Malcom X,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Hairspray,” “Mississippi Burning,” and “King.”

Documentaries: “Standing on my Sisters Shoulders,” “Freedom Riders.”


Youtube.  Short Civil Rights Movement pieces:


Also: parts of “Eyes on the Prize.”  A documentary.


See Senetta Smith’s piece on Emmett Till from the 2009 Storylines Project.


See Civil Rights Era photos by Charles Moore (click on the words):


Library of Congress, Civil Rights era photographs:


Documentary movie “Life and Debt” (about the island of Jamaica) that uses as its premise Jamaica Kincaid’s powerful essay “A Small Place” (about Antigua, where Ashley’s parents were from).   Economy, government, colonialism, tourism in a small, tropical place, insider/outsider perspectives. 


The Bronx in Movies: “Summer of Sam,” “A Bronx Tale,” “Finding Forrester.”  “The Bronx is Burning”  (TV mini-series about the Yankees in the World Series in 1977).


Art History (for kids).  Could be helpful with art references:


Impressionism (for kids).  Referenced in Words to My Life’s Song:


R    E     G     I    O    N


The Bronx:


Little Cranberry Island:




See all of the above on maps.  Also reference Zambia.  Discuss the difference between a continent and a country.  


V  O   C  A  B  U  L  A  R  Y     A  N  D    T  H  E  M  E  S 





Life story










Stained Glass

Block Print













Fire escape

Air shaft/Shaftway






Racial discrimination















Shapes (squares, rectangles, boxes, triangles, circles)
























CD for CRW:  “Drums of Burundi” (East Africa/folktales); “This Little Light,” “He’s Got the Whole World,” and “When the Saints Go Marching in” (all referenced in Ashley’s book: Let it Shine: Three Favorite Spirituals); “What a Wonderful World” (reference: What a Wonderful World—Ashley did the illustrations for the book).  Musicans from the Bronx: Tito Puente, Mary J. Blige, Regina Spektor, Jennifer Lopez, Grandmaster Flash, Laura Nyro, Duke Ellington (buried in the Bronx), and Billy Joel (born in the Bronx).  Jelly Roll Morton (lived in Harlem).  Patty Griffin (Maine). Calypso (of Antigua) by Harry Belafonte.  Pablo Casals on cello (he is referenced in Words to My Life’s Song, as is his letter to Ashley).  All of the above: Ashley’s contemporaries at one time or another.