The Innovations in Reading Prize, which recognizes sources around the country that help make reading and literacy more interesting and accessible to the public, carries a $2,500 prize and a framed certificate. Any teacher can shove a book into a kid's hand; any library can stock their shelves with books they hope someone will read. It takes a special passion and commitment to approach the subject of reading with enthusiasm and encourage others to do the same in a unique way.
Wilder, a teacher at Santa Fe Prep and author of two books (Daddy Needs a Drink and Tales from the Teachers' Lounge) and a columnist in the Reporter (the first issue of every month contains his beloved column, which features his dryly humorous look at family life; check it out in today's paper), was the only individual to win the Innovations in Reading award.
The other recipients were: Readkiddoread.com, a website/organization dedicated to helping parents and teachers find books that kids will love; Fathers Bridging the Miles, a program that allows incarcerated fathers to record their voice reading so it can later be played for their children; the Maricopa County LIbrary District in Gilbert, Arizona, which abandoned the Dewey Decimal System and grouped books into "neighborhoods," more like a bookstore, and has seen circulation double as a result; and readergirlz, an online community dedicated to teen girls, which promotes reading as fun, and gives teens a chance to chat with their favorite young adult authors.
As the only individual to win the award, Wilder has definitely been bestowed a particularly unique honor. The other organizations recognized are larger, comprised of multiple people, and especially the websites have a far greater reach (one would think) than an individual in a small city in New Mexico; but Wilder has managed to make an indellible mark on the community, and said community is making it known.
The National Book Foundation writes: "Robert Wilder is both an elementary and high-school teacher in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and the only individual to receive the prize. His creativity, commitment, and passion for sharing his love of books with his students are exceptional. He is a powerful example of the impact a single, devoted teacher can have on the lives of his students. 'Books are my gesture toward a better life for anyone willing to turn some pages,' Bob says. 'Like many teachers and writers, I find myriad ways to get good books into other people's hands, whether it's a kindergartner struggling over his first sentence, a high-school student trying to find her voice in the wilderness of adolescence, or an intellectually starved friend at a dinner party.'"
(By the way, to anyone having the same thoughts I did: I asked Rob via email what was up with them referring to him as "Bob" in that blurb. "It was weird & I asked them to change in future mailings," he wrote back. "Can't have everything...")
Wilder, a graduate of the prestigious Warren Wilson University MFA writing program, has been instrumental in getting as much of the written word into his students' brains as possible. He works with the Lannan Foundation to get free tickets for Santa Fe Prep students for the Readings and Conversations series at the Lensic.
Wilder also views his students, all students, as equals. It's easy for elementary school teachers to give their classes Shel Silverstein poems (not knocking Shel, mind you, but it's not the most complex stuff in the world) or assignments to write silly limericks and call it a poetry lesson. Wilder, breaking the mold, sees kids and young adults as sentient beings who have just as much emotional capacity as adults, and a comparable drive to create truly astonishing works. He views each child as a reader and writer, and it's simply whether or not the child knows that is the hurdle. Even college professors sometimes don't give their charges this much of a loose lead.
In her recommendation letter for Wilder, former colleague Kate Geier writes: "Every day was different with Rob, nothing like the routine lessons in the teachers' guides piled up in the closet. One afternoon Rob came equipped with a copy of Sandra Cisneros' Abuelito Who, a challenging and emotional poem. Rob explained that each student would write a poem in the style of Abuelito Who. The resulting poems were honest and sad, funny and real. Each year, I bring those poems out and teach the lesson I saw Rob teach. Each year, those are among the best poems my students write."
While Rob has gathered quite the following in Santa Fe for his inspired writing and not to mention his dashing good looks, some of the best quotes in support of him come not from his esteemed literary colleagues, but from kids he's taught. My favorites are: “I like when you put letter stickers on your face.” - Ivy, age 6, or: “I like your hair.” - Alejandro, age 5.
I'll leave you with a quote from someone who is both a former student of Wilder's and a former SFR intern (she and I worked for free the very same summer, as it were). Though I should note that, as any student of a truly great teacher knows, you are never a "former" student of a good teacher. The knowledge they give you, as Wilder gives his students, stays with you forever, colors the way you see the world, and influences your entire life in the best possible way.
"Rob made me want to write because he was maybe the fourth person to encourage me and take a real interest in my writing... Rob validated my seventeen-year-old scribblings while keeping me from taking myself too seriously. Once, when discussing a story I'd written, Rob suggested a rewrite wherein one character asks another to the prom. I wrinkled my nose and said ‘Ew-- that's so high school.' Rob came back with ‘I got news for you kid, you ARE in high school.' Rob's interest in my work as a young writer was instrumental in my pursuit of writing in college and beyond. Rob was the kind of teacher I needed: ...someone to tell me I was a good writer, show me ways to get better, and to say ‘keep writing.'”—Adele, age 23