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.