2013 Teacher of the Year

Alaskan Cove,
Emma Ratshin, age 13
Seattle, Washington
Lakeside Middle School
Teacher: Alicia Hokanson,
2013 River of Words Finalist
Saint Mary's Kalmanovitz School of Education and River of Words Celebrate our Teachers of the Year!

River of Words/ Kalmanovitz School of Education 2013 Teacher of the Year  

John Oliver Simon, of Poetry Inside Out and California Poets in the Schools; San Francisco, CA

updated February 2018 by Ed Hirtzel


John Oliver Simon, 2013 Teacher of the Year

John Oliver Simon scribbled his first poem at the age of fourteen under a full moon on October 19, 1956:

Lunatic night, the moon pale silver 
and the earth below a moonlit skeleton, 
carved white marble, eaten by starwinds…

After studying at the Putney School, Swarthmore College and the University of California, John’s plans to become a professor of English Literature and write poetry on the side were derailed by the apocalyptic aspirations of the 60’s. He started teaching poetry to children in People’s Community School, a parent coop in Berkeley, and began working with California Poets In The Schools (CPITS) in 1971.

“It was a revelation to me,” John says, “in those first CPITS workshops, how kids who didn’t seem like they had much to say would burst out with the most imaginative poetry.” John became Statewide Coordinator of CPITS in 1978, mentoring poet-teachers and tripling the program’s outreach in the first three years of Proposition 13. Later, he became a member of CPITS' board.

John later conceived and funded projects to teach poetry in conjunction with the art, history and natural science resources of the Oakland Museum of California, and with the immense cultural treasures of the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City. “It was one of my greatest thrills,” says John, “to stand below the Stone of the Sun and give chilango  sixth-graders the assignment to write about the great earthquake they had recently experienced.”

John fell in love with the Spanish language at the age of 40 and began travelling, studying and translating contemporary Latin American poets. Wanting to get his hands dirty with the work of the world, he spent nine years teaching fifth and sixth grade in a leaky portable in East Oakland, then a year travelling down Latin America by second-class bus and one-star hotel, returning with a poem-sequence, Caminante,  which Gary Snyder called “a major poem.” He additionally received an NEA Fellowship in Translation for his work on translating the verse of renowned Chilean surrealist poet, Gonzalo Rojas. Additionally, in 1989, Simon was awarded an Individual Artist’s Fellowship by the California Arts Council.

In 2001 John became Artistic Director of Poetry Inside Out (PIO), a program of the nonprofit Center for the Art of Translation in San Francisco. PIO’s big idea is that translation is the deepest form of reading. PIO students translate great poems from a wide variety of languages they may or may not know, and then write their own great poetry inspired by that profound immersion in the poetic process. Over the last ten years, PIO has placed 35 finalists and four Grand Prize winners in River of Words.

His accomplishments and contributions to his community were also recognized by local government and by his peers. Jan. 20, 2015 was recognized by the city of Berkeley as "John Oliver Simon Day" in honor of Simon’s many contributions to the Bay Area writing and educational commnity. The next year, on May 14, 2016, he received the Berkely Poetry Festival's Lifetime Achievement Award. While his commitment to his community never wavered, his passion for translation likewise never faded: as late as 2017, John traveled to Madrid in order to attend a conference on translations of Gonzalo Rojas' work.

John Oliver Simon devoted his life to language, poetry, and the people around him. He passed away on January 16, 2018, and left behind a legacy of living words: verse that lives on, and students who will carry his lessons on in their own lives and writing practices.