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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Welcome to your own local environment on the River of Words website! Whether you’d like to make art, write poems, or learn more about the natural world around you, this is the place to be.

Check out our international art and poetry contest, open to youth age 5 to 19 around the world. It’s free to enter, and you could win a trip to the awards ceremony in Washington, DC! To get started, discover your local watershed. Get art tips and poetry tips from our experts. 

One of the best ways to learn about art and poetry is to look at a lot of it. Take a moment to look at the amazing art and poetry created by youth around the world

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Regional Coordinators

Regional Coordinators

Here in our California headquarters we don’t pretend to have that knowledge about every watershed on our continent—or our planet. Our Watershed Explorer Educator’s Guide is merely a foundation; to complete the structure we rely on our invaluable team of Regional Coordinators.

These unpaid volunteers work at the state or regional level to bring cultural and natural history alive for students and community members. Some administer state-level ROW contests in conjunction with our international contest. Others conduct teacher-training workshops, create state-specific teaching materials, or host traveling ROW exhibits.

To see whether your area has a ROW regional coordinator, please check our directory.

Environmental literacy—the concept on which ROW is based—depends on deep and intimate local knowledge.
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Our services for educators include:

Educator-training workshops. Our dynamic sessions, held throughout the United States and abroad, teach classroom teachers, park rangers, 4-H and Scout leaders, and other educators how to to use their own homegrounds as a context for learning. The curriculum integrates outdoor observation, investigation, and poetry writing with core subjects like English, math, science, social studies, and the arts. Workshop info.

The Watershed Explorer Educator’s Guide. Incorporates language skills, art, science, history, and culture into activities and exercises for kindergarten through high-school students. Order it now.

Free poetry writing guide. This full-color, 75-page guide helps students get beyond impediments to creativity and expression. Developed by Louisiana teachers Connie McDonald and Harriet Maher, in conjunction with River of Words and Milkweed Editions. Download it now.

Free curriculum guide, Teaching the Poetry of Rivers, developed by the Colorado Center for the Book, Colorado Foundation for Water Education, and the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities. Download it now. Integrates poetry, water resource science and the humanities.

NOTE: If your submission was returned to you, please double check your entry forms. If your forms list a Berkeley PO Box, those forms are out of date. Each year we mail out new forms, and new forms are always available here. Throw away your outdated forms and please download the new forms for your files. **For more information re: returned submissions, see here.**Teachers are the key to River of Words’ success. From the beginning, we have supported their work and furthered their professional development and connection to their communities.

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One Square Block

Every block tells a story—of plants and animals, history and culture, soil and water. One Square Block™ invites students to explore a single square block in their community—their own neighborhood, a local park, the schoolyard—and create poetry, art, and reports about what they find there.

Younger students may create field guides to plants, trees, and animals on their block; they’ll learn where their water comes from, where the rain runoff goes, and who lived there a long time ago. Older students may investigate land use, transportation, zoning, and other specifics; they conduct oral histories and learn to identify architectural details, weather patterns, and geographic information systems (GIS) coordinates. Each block project will post a detail-rich, standardized “block print” online and compare its block with other blocks from around the world.

We have developed and piloted about ten activities for One Square Block with great success. We are currently working with both Saint Mary's faculty and community partners to expand our offerings, which will eventually include a full K-12 range of exciting and interactive place-based classroom and field activities.

One Square Block is designed to hone students’ skills of observation, critical thinking, and problem-solving, all necessary tools for effective watershed stewards.

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Educational institutions and nonprofits may rent high-quality laminated color reproductions of art from our collection. They are lightweight, easy to display, and inexpensive to ship. We charge a negotiable, nominal rental fee. Contact The Center for Enviromental Literacy at 925-631-4289 or [email protected] for more details.

Museums, galleries, and other venues that can guarantee round-the-clock security may rent original art. Fees are negotiable.

We also offer special themed exhibits, including:

  • Birds! Birds! Birds! from River of Words
  • In Praise of Water: Images and Poetry from the River of Words Collection
  • Children of Chernobyl
  • Frogs and Amphibians
  • The World in their Hands: Earth Images from River of Words
  • Lost Horizons: The Art and Poetry of Gulf Coast Children
  • As Above, So Below: Reflection in the Art and Poetry of Children
  • Art in Exile: The Extraordinary Art of Afghan Refugee Children
If you like the artwork you see in our online gallery, we’d love to share them with you. We offer several options for displaying River of Words art in your community. We also license River of Words art and poetry for use in annual reports, textbooks, online media and other uses.

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In addition to serving educators, we also lead workshops for students in kindergarten through 12th grade. All of our workshops provide ideas and models for integrating nature exploration and the arts into core subject areas, including science, math, social studies, and language arts.

Educator workshops: We offer two-day, one-day, or half-day workshops as well as shorter introductory presentations. The cost is $1,000 per day plus travel expenses. Workshops may be held at your site or at Saint Mary's College in Moraga, California

Student workshops: Our workshops can be tailored to fit into a single classroom period, several periods, a full day (for older students), or a semester. They may be held in your classroom or in an off-campus site, or outdoors.

Topics include journal making; anxiety-free poetry writing; "sightless" drawing; kite flying (to learn about flight, weather, and atmosphere); and information about the local watershed and bioregion. Students also learn how to hone their observation skills; educators learn about classroom resources, new ways to engage hard-to-reach learners, and other invaluable tips.

Presentations: In addition to our workshops, we offer introductory presentations about River of Words.

To schedule a workshop or a presentation, please contact the Center at 925-631-4289 or email Director, Pamela Michael at [email protected]

River of Words offers customized workshops for teachers and informal educators — park rangers, Scout leaders, and others — who work for schools, libraries, museums, community organizations, and governmental agencies.

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