center for environmental Literacy

Arts in Conservation Education: River of Words as a Case Study


Nature has always been a favorite subject of artists—whether they are painting the Rocky Mountains, photographing the Midwestern plains, singing about life in the country, carving a decoy or a flute, tying a fly, reciting a poem or telling a story, building a boat, or just dancing for the sheer joy of a sunrise.

Environmental Resources

Use these resources in conjunction with our River of Words Watershed Explorer Educator’s Guide and our online art and poetry resources.

Environmental education

River of Words Art Judge John Muir Laws's website provides exceptional resources for environmental education. In particular, his nature journaling curriculum, Opening the World through Journaling (created in collaboration with the CA Native Plant Society) is top-notch and fun for all ages! And, it's free!

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s environmental education site

North American Association for Environmental Education

National Math Trail
Integrating math into outdoor education. Includes a good section on evaluation.

National Geographic Lesson Plans
For grades K-12.

State Education and Environment Roundtable
The environment as an integrating context for education.

Center for Ecoliteracy
School gardens, creek restoration, collaboration ideas, and more.

All Species Project
Based in Kansas City; provides interdisciplinary environmental education and community building action projects for cities, neighborhoods, and villages.

Orion Society
Quality publications and nature-based curricula.

Orion for Educators


Surf Your Watershed
U.S. students can type a ZIP ccode to find their watershed. A service of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Give Water a Hand
Programs for student-led community projects, from the University of Wisconsin’s Environmental Resources Center.

NOOA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
Everything you need to know about estuaries! Huge selection of free, downloadable lesson plans for middle and high school teachers, tied to national standards.

Science museums

San Francisco’s hands-on science and art museum.

Lawrence Hall of Science
Online experiments, activities, and projects for kids. Museum is part of the University of California at Berkeley.

Plants and animals

View the world through a bee's eye!

A World Community of Old Trees
Kids and adults around the world draw, paint, and photograph their favorite trees. Click on the name of a school to view a project.

U.S. students can type in a Zip code and see field guides, maps, and other information about their location.

Other resources

How kites could be the future of clean, renewable energy
A TED talk by Saul Griffith, founder of Makani Energy.

Visionary and practical ideas for restoring the Earth.

Europe and Mexico

Rivieres d’Images et Fleuves de Mots
River of Words in Europe

Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE)
Danish-based organization that offers environmental education resources for all European countries.

Centro Ecológico Los Cuartos
Based in Mexico; provides Spanish-language environmental-education resources.

Whether you’re just getting started or looking to expand your environmental/arts-teaching program, these online resources will inspire and inform you.
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Tips for Educators

  • Read our Watershed Explorer curriculum and Educator’s Guide. It contains lots of background material on watershed science and how to teach poetry to children. You’ll also find a bibliography and resource guide, as well as classroom and field activities designed to help children explore their communities and their imaginations.
  • Visit our Regional Coordinators page to see where your state or region has a River of Words Coordinator. If so, contact him or her for ideas and information.
  • If you are school-based, encourage your fellow teachers to be involved in River of Words. Collaborations between science, language arts, social studies, and art teachers have produced wonderful poems and paintings and led to community-service projects like creek clean-ups and school gardens.
  • Review the River of Words Contest Rules for information about how to enter, artwork size, poem length, etc.
  • Check out our resources for educators.
  • Need additional resources? Call local water or park districts, museums, conservation, and arts organizations. They’re often generous about sharing their naturalists, poets, artists, videos, and maps, etc.
  • Build community partnerships by involving parents, service groups, local businesses, the media, and other community resources in your River of Words projects. Such partnerships are not essential, but giving students’ work and concerns a wider audience can engage them more fully in the process.
  • Get outdoors—even if it’s only the schoolyard! Join your students in field activities that encourage observation, data recording, sketching, and listening. Repeated visits to the same site allow students to observe changes. Many teachers incorporate a “service learning” component in their ROW projects, like water quality monitoring, tree planting, gardening, or creek clean-up.
If you’re an educator who’s new to River of Words, welcome! Here are some tips for getting the most out of your association with us.
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Contest Judges

Our judges have the very difficult job of choosing four Grand Prize winners in Poetry and four Grand Prize winners in Art and about 100 finalists from many thousands of entries each year.

In addition, we award a Shasta Bioregion Prize (art or poetry) to a student from the San Francisco Bay Area, an Anacostia Watershed Prize (art or poetry) to a Washington, DC area student, and the Monkey's Raincoat Prize for a short poem in the haiku tradition.

Art Judge

John Muir Laws

John Muir Laws, River of Words Art JudgeRiver of Words art judge, naturalist, educator and artist John (Jack) Muir Laws delights in exploring the natural world and sharing this love with others.  Laws has worked as an environmental educator since 1984 in California, Wyoming, and Alaska.  He teaches classes on natural history, conservation biology, scientific illustration, and field sketching. He is trained as a wildlife biologist and is an associate of the California Academy of Sciences. In 2009, he received the Terwilliger Environmental Award for outstanding  service in Environmental Education. He is a 2010 TogetherGreen Conservation Leadership Fellow with the National Audubon Society. He was the 2011 artist for International Migratory Bird Day. Laws has written and illustrated books about art and natural history including The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds (2012), Sierra Birds: a Hiker's Guide (2004), The Laws Guide to theSierra Nevada (2007), and The Laws Pocket Guide Set to the San Francisco Bay Area (2009). He is a regular contributor to Bay Nature magazine with his "Naturalists Notebook" column. His illustrations are informed by extensive field experience and capture the feeling of the living plant or animal, while also including details critical for identification. Laws is deeply committed to stewardship of nature and collaborates with organizations throughout the state. He is the founder and host of the Bay Area Nature Journal Club. A free, family friendly, intergenerational community who connect with nature through art and field journaling. He is the primary author and editor of the California Native Plant Society Curriculum: Opening the world through Nature Journaling. This standards based, curriculum is kid tested and teacher approved and integrates science, language arts, and visual arts through teaching students to keep a nature journal. He initiated Following Muir's Footsteps, an educational program to engender passionate love of nature, personal understanding of natural history and commitment to stewardship. This program gets students out in the field, learning from their own observations and using field guides and nature journals as the basis for discovering nature around them. As a part of this project, he is working secure funding to donate sets of field guides to every middle and high school in the Sierra Nevada.  

Poetry Judges

Robert Hass

2013 River of Words Category I Grand Prize Winner, Taylor DelPrincipie, with Robert HassRobert Hass is the author of several books of poems, including Field Guide, Praise, Human Wishes, and Sun Under Wood, and a collection of essays, Twentieth Century Pleasures. Born in San Francisco, he has lived most of his life in California; its landscapes inform both his poetry and his prose. Hass is also a professor of English at the University of California at Berkeley. His awards include the Yale Younger Poets Award, the William Carlos Williams Award, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for criticism in 1984, an Award of Merit from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. His poetry collection Time and Materials (2007) won the National Book Award for poetry and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. From 1995 to 1997, Hass served as Poet Laureate of the United States and Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress.

Pamela Michael

Pamela Michael (left) with former Co-chair of ROW, Samantha Sanderson Pamela Michael, co-founder of River of Words, is an education activist and writer whose works include books, articles, radio documentaries, and essays on education, community, travel, and culture. Michael was executive director of the United Nations Media Education Task Force from 1990 to 1992. She has taught writing to adults and young people for the last 20 years and has written articles for newspapers, textbooks, and magazines, including Shape, Orion, San Francisco Chronicle, Odyssey, Resurgence, BookLinks, and Her books include The Gift of Rivers (2000), A Mother’s World: Journey of the Heart (1998), and River of Words: Young Poets and Artists on the Nature of Things (2008).

Spanish Language Judge

Dr. Raina J. León  

Raina LeonDr. Raina J. León, Cave Canem graduate fellow (2006) and member of the Carolina African American Writers Collective, has received several prestigious poetry awards and is the author of the forthcoming 2013 book of poetry, Boogeyman Dawn, which was also a finalist for the Naomi Long Madgett Prize (2010). Her first collection of poetry, Canticle of Idols, was a finalist for both the Cave Canem First Book Poetry Prize (2005) and the Andrés Montoya Poetry Prize (2006) and is now available through Wordtech Communications.  She headed the High School Literacy Project at the University of North Carolina where she recently received her doctorate in education and is currently an assistant professor of education in the Kalmanovitz School of Education at St. Mary's College of California.  She came to Saint Mary’s from the Department of Defense Education Activity, where for three years she taught military dependents in Bamberg, Germany.   Raina received her BA in Journalism from Pennsylvania State University, MA in Teaching of English from Teachers College Columbia University and PhD in Education under the Culture, Curriculum and Change strand at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  Her research interests include high school engagement and the teaching of poetry, critical literacy in the high school classroom, facilitating freshmen transitions and educational technology usage among high school educators.  She also is a founding editor of The Acentos Review, an online quarterly, international journal devoted to the promotion and publication of Latino and Latina arts.  


American Sign Language (ASL) Judges

Ella Mae Lentz
Ella Mae Lentz, a 1971 graduate of California School for the Deaf, teaches in the ASL Department at Vista Community College in Berkeley. She has been teaching ASL, deaf culture, and interpreter preparation at various colleges since 1975. She has trained ASL instructors and interpreters and has lectured at various workshops, including national and international symposiums. Lentz was involved in pioneering scientific ASL research and is also known for presentations of her original poetic works in ASL. A videotaped collection of her poems, The Treasure, has been released. Ella’s degree from Gallaudet University is in English and Drama.

Susan Rutherford
Dr. Susan Rutherford, artistic and administrative director of DEAF Media, is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar and lecturer in linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, where she designed and implemented the country’s first university course on the language, culture and history of deaf people in America. She received her doctorate in folklore/deaf studies from UC Berkeley. Her research and teaching focuses on American deaf folklore, the traditional arts of American deaf culture, sociolinguistics of American Sign Language, and minority group dynamics of the American deaf community. Rutherford created and produced Celebration: Deaf Artists and Performers for the Deaf Education and Arts Network; she was also project director and executive producer of the PBS series Rainbow’s End and the project director/producer for the National Endowment for the Humanities' project American Culture: The Deaf Perspective.

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Rules and Guidelines

You may enter on your own, or through your school, or youth organization. We accept poems in English, Spanish and American Sign Language (please submit on DVD.) You may enter as many poems or pieces of art as you wish. All entries are acknowledged with a certificate but are not returned. Good luck!

Contest rules:

Entries will be judged in the following categories.

Category I -- K-Grade 2 (Primary
Category II -- Grades 3-6 (Elementary)
Category III -- Grades 7-9 (Intermediary)
Category IV -- Grades 10-12 (Secondary) 

There is no charge to enter, and students may enter as many times as they like. However, a separate entry form must be completed for each submission.

Students may enter on their own or as part of a group (classroom, Girl Scout troop, 4-H, etc.). All entrants receive acknowledgement in the form of a “Watershed Explorer” certificate.

Teachers or facilitators must send all entries from their classes in one envelope (or several, if needed). Please do not have each student mail his or her entry separately.

Teachers/facilitators must complete a Facilitator Form along with the group entries, as well as a typed list of the names of all entrants in your class (Class List). Please keep a copy of this list to refer to when customizing and distributing the Watershed Explorer Certificates for your students.

Every entrant will receive a Watershed Explorer Certificate.

Submissions become property of River of Words. Through submission of poetry or artwork, contestants and their legal guardians grant nonexclusive reproduction and publication rights to the works submitted, which will not be returned.

Poetry Guidelines

All poems must be original work.

Written poetry must be either typed (preferred) or legibly written in ink (pencil does not photocopy); ASL poetry must be submitted on a DVD.

Poems should not exceed 32 lines in length (written) or 3 minutes (signed).

The student’s name, school, city and state should be on the poem, and a completed Entry Form (individual or group) must be stapled back to back with each poem, with both the poem and entry form facing out. For ASL poetry, please include a brief written summary of the poem’s content. Poems not submitted in this format, or with incomplete or illegible writing will not be judged.

Collaborative poems are accepted, but only one child (chosen as the group representative) will be eligible for any prizes awarded.

We accept poems in English, Spanish, and American Sign Language only.

Artwork guidelines

All artwork must be original work. We do not accept color photocopies.

Artwork may not exceed 11” by 17”— no exceptions.

Acceptable media are paint, pencil, markers, ink, crayon, chalk or pastel (fixed), photography, cloth, collage, woodcuts, linoleum block prints, silk screen, monoprints, lithographs and computer art. Photo entries must be at least 8” x 10”.

All entries must include the student’s name, school, city, and state on the back. Do not use marking pen or anything that will show through. A completed entry form must also be affixed to the back of each piece of artwork. Please attach the entry form with tape or other fixative (if using glue, be careful to use one that will not run through and damage the artwork). Do not use paperclips.

High-quality color reproductions of prize-winning artwork will be provided to their respective creators.

Art entries must be done on paper that will allow for duplication, display, or framing. Please, no notebook or typing paper, and do not mat, mount, laminate, frame, or fold artwork.  Entries must be mailed flat or rolled in a tube—no folding!


All U.S. entries must be postmarked by December 1. 

International entries must be received by February 1.

We are not responsible for entries that are late or lost in the mail. Entries received after the deadline will be automatically entered in next year’s contest.

Entries may be submitted at any time during the year, but no response will be sent until after the yearly contest deadline.

Winners and prizes

About 100 poems and artworks are selected as finalists each year. All winners receive ribbons, books or art supplies, and other prizes.

Eight grand prize winners—four in poetry and four in art, in four age categories—are chosen from the U.S. entries. 

Winners will be announced in April of each year, and are honored at our West Coast Award ceremony at Saint Mary's College of California in Spring of 2015.* Winners must sign an acceptance form. For a list of winners, please include a self-addressed, stamped (2-ounce postage) envelope when sending in your entry.

Special prizes: River of Words and The Center for the Book in the Library of Congress honor two students who live in our respective watersheds: River of Words’ Shasta Bioregion Prize (SF Bay Area) and The Library of Congress’s Anacostia Watershed Prize (Washington, D.C.). The winning works may be either poetry or art.

Note: Many states and regions also award River of Words prizes. Check our Regional Coordinators Directory to see if your area has a coordinator, then check with that person to see if he or she conducts a state or regional River of Words contest.

The River of Words international art and poetry contest is open to any child in the world, from 5 to 19 years of age, who has not yet completed high school.

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Art & Poetry Contest

Yet despite its importance, environmental and arts education is marginalized in the United States. This sorry scenario is increasingly true in other countries as well.

River of Words was founded to give new life to the teaching of art and poetry through watershed exploration. Our innovative Watershed Explorer Educator's Guide brings together sketching and botany, nature journaling and poetry writing. Students who participate are encouraged to submit their work to our free international art and poetry contest, held annually since 1995 in conjunction with the Center of the Book in the Library of Congress.

Contest Rules and Form in English

Contest Rules and Form in Spanish 


  • US entries must be postmarked by December 1, 2015.
  • International entries must be received by February 1, 2016.

Entry Forms & River of Words Classroom Poster (2016 poster coming soon)

You can now submit your poems online. (Individual entries only)

Individual Entry Form 
Facilitator Entry Form  (Facilitator forms must accompany group entries)
Group Entry Form

Individual Entry Form (Spanish)
Facilitator Form (Spanish)
 (Formas para facilitadores tienen que acompañar entradas del grupo) 
Group Entry Form (Spanish) 

Mail entries to:
River of Words
1928 Saint Mary's Road PMB 5060
Moraga, CA 94575

Nature has been the greatest source of inspiration for artists and poets since humans began drawing on the walls of caves and singing sagas. 

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Art and Poetry Tips

Nature, especially the parts that are untamed, provides great inspiration for writers.

Art tips

Here are some tips to help you grow as an artist:

  • Always carry a sketchbook and pencil or camera. The sketchbook can be small enough to fit in a pocket. You want to be prepared when you see something you want to remember.
  • Be patient. Making art doesn’t “just happen.” Even experienced artists have false starts and scary moments.
  • Draw what you see. “Copying” can be a good thing—it teaches us to closely observe a leaf, a shell, a stream and then translate its nature onto the page.
  • When you use a pencil, draw lightly. You can always go back and darken your lines. 
  • Cut out a rectangle from a piece of cardboard or paper in the proportions of your paper. Hold up the paper and look through the “window” at the tree or rock or mountain you’re drawing with one eye. Keep it steady as you draw what’s in the “window” with your other hand. 
  • Blur your vision. If you wear glasses, take them off. If you don’t, cross your eyes slightly until your vision blurs. Now draw what you see—the general impression instead of the details.
  • Use your pencil to estimate. Hold it up to the item you’re drawing and use your fingers to mark off the size of what you see. That flower may seem huge, but once you “measure” it you may be surprised to learn it’s only half the size of the leaf next to it.
  • Try using light-colored chalk on dark paper. You’ll be forced to focus on the highlights of what you’re drawing.
  • Remember that shadows are never gray. They’re usually the opposite, or complementary, color of whatever is making the shadow. For example, a green-leafed bush will cast a shadow that contains a lot of red.
  • Think in terms of foreground and background. Elements that are close to you will need more detail. They’ll also appear darker. Backgrounds tend to be lighter and less detailed.
  • Think in terms of warm and cool colors. Reds and yellows tend to come forward; cooler blues and greens recede. But not all blues, greens, and violets are cool. For example, yellow-green is warmer than mint green, even if they are equally light or dark.


Poetry tips

 Here are some tips for young poets (and older ones, too!) from Robert Hass, River of Words co-founder and United States poet laureate from 1995 to 1997:

  • Get something down on paper. Waiting for inspiration is like waiting to be asked to dance. Inspiration will come more often if you show you are interested.
  • Pay attention to what’s around you. Teach yourself the names of some of the birds and trees in your neighborhood. Learn the names of the stars overhead. Look at the way light falls on your street at different times of day.
  • Pay attention to what you’re feeling. A lot of poetry has to do with discovering what you feel. Sometimes, if you notice what you’re feeling, a phrase or an image for it will come to you out of nowhere. It will be a place to start and the result may surprise you.
  • Pay attention to your own mind. No thought is too weird for poetry. And everyone has weird thoughts all the time. 
  • Say your poems out loud to yourself until you’re pleased with how they sound. A poem isn’t finished until it’s pleasing to your ear. 
  • Read lots of poetry. It will give you ideas about what poetry can do, techniques you can try. And real feeling will put you in touch with real feeling. Someone else’s originality will make you feel yours.

And here are some tips from our own Watershed Explorer curriculum:

  • If you get stuck on one thing, go to another. Don’t erase—you may want that word or idea later.
  • Sound out difficult words and don’t worry about spelling. You can look up the spelling later.
  • If you want your poem to have a title, wait until you’ve written the poem.The title may be a word or phrase from the poem, or something completely unrelated. Wait and see!
  • Try a collaborative poem. This works best in a group of five or more. One person creates the poem’s first line, the second person builds on that line to create the next line, and so on.
Drawing and painting the natural world is a great way to remember a beautiful scene—and to create a new one.

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