A morning bell rings at Roosevelt High School, and outside a room in the deepest recess of the C Wing of visual and performing arts, Erin Nguyen waits smiling outside her ceramics classroom. As the high-schoolers file in, I note that it’s only the second week of a new semester, and Erin is able to greet each of her students by name.
Known as “Miss Winn,” to her students, Erin lives in Sioux Falls with her husband, Dan. She has ten years of teaching experience, and has spent the last two working her “dream job” at Roosevelt. Consummately expressive with her face and her words, Erin laughs easily and speaks at a leisurely pace, drawing out the vowels of certain words, turning her conversation into a kind of melody.
I’ve worked next door to Miss Winn this year as a substitute for Lisa Vande Vegte’s drawing and painting classes, so it was a joy to spend the morning in Erin’s space as an observer of her classroom, as well as her pottery studio, where a handful of students threw clay during their open periods.
In the classroom, Erin wastes no time giving her lesson. The topic is movement, and Erin shows the class a stylized drawing of a bird perched on a branch. She asks, “How does the artist create movement?” and a brief discussion about the lines and values of the drawing follows. “If the image is flat,” she concludes, “the eye sees, and looks away. If you create movement, then the eye lingers.” She has made the case for her students to experiment with movement in their own drawings, and gives them the gift of 45 minutes of uninterrupted work time. Erin settles into her own drawing of a buffalo, and the whole group seems to get lost in their art.
With four minutes left in the period, Erin flips off the lights and projects her drawing for all to see. “This neck,” she points out the buffalo’s skinny neck, “is driving me craaazy. But does it bother you as much as it does me?” Heads shake. She is reinforcing the idea that art is hard, and the real work of an artist is to persevere through frustrations. “So instead of quitting, I’m going to try and fix it by maybe extending this chain running along its spine.”
Before leaving the class, the students have to do two things: jot down how they plan to create further movement in their drawing, and say goodbye to Miss Winn, who stands in the doorway with a personal parting wish for each student.
I can see why Erin Nguyen’s classes are full, and students spend time in her clay studio during their open periods: Erin sees each and every one of her kids, and has created an environment that welcomes their creativity.
So, Erin, just to start off, why don’t you give me kind of a background of yourself. A bio of growing up, maybe some family, where you grew up, how art played a role in your development, and things like that.
Absolutely. So, I was actually born in Sioux Falls, but I grew up in Iowa with my mom, dad and my brother. My brother and I are 13 months apart, so we tease that we’re Irish twins. I wasn’t a huge artist growing up, but when I was 15 (I was in high school) I got in my mind, I’m going to take a ceramics class. You had to take a pre-rec first. So, I took that pre-rec, and then I took ceramics, and I’ve never been more sure of anything in my life. I was like, yep, I’ve found my thing. You know, at 15. So, that was kind of cool. I have this amazing mentor and teacher, Ron Nettin. He’s a studio potter now. So, he retired from teaching, and now he’s a studio potter in Storm Lake. He just really cultivated this love and passion for ceramics, and gave me so much freedom to kind of discover myself and my artwork and stuff, so.
When I recall my high school days…a lot of classroom work, working with books and reading and things like that. But to be able to come down to the art wing where you’re creating, what did that feel like for you? Or how do you think it is for your students to be able to come down to this wing, and to work with their hands, and to work creatively? Why do you think that’s important?
When I was in high school, it always just felt like home, so it wasn’t like a big deal. It was like, yep, this is my space, this is what I do, this is my identity. So, I don’t think I thought much about it as a teenager, but I think as a teacher, you see students who are so afraid to make mistakes. You know, and who are so afraid to do things the wrong way. Because of that, I try so hard to create this environment where you can make mistakes, and that’s how you learn. And they’re really relational, which is so much fun. They want to know that you care about them; that you want to know what’s happening in their life. And if you can give those two pieces, I am always stunned with what my students can do. I mean, they are so capable. Yes, they are 14, 15,16, 17, 18, but they’re doing amazing things just by having those two pieces of the puzzle. And I think, creating, it does so many amazing things. I mean, if you are naturally an artist, it’s what makes you tick. But even if you are not naturally that person, I think it allows you to calm down. It allows you to kind of put things in perspective. Especially teaching clay, it’s so hands-on. And I think that there really are studies, with stress and anxiety and depression, that if you can be doing something that it just helps you as a human being. So, creativity, and being able to create I think is huge.
Sometimes there’s a perception for high schoolers that if given an elective they want to take an easy class. And sometimes there’s this perception that taking an art class, being in choir, or something like that is like taking a sluff class.
Oh my gosh, I tell my students this all the time. I’m like, I giggle when students tell me, I’m taking your class ‘cause it’s easy. I’m like, no, art is hard! Art is SO HARD! So, I think, what they’re trying to say when they say that is that it’s a different atmosphere. You know, it’s not competitive. We’re not trying to get that A and B; were just creating. So, I think what they’re trying to say is a little bit different than what comes out, because no one can deny that art is hard.
So, you say you’ve got some people who art comes naturally, and then you contrast it with students who maybe it doesn’t come as naturally to them. What are some strategies that you work at to try to bring art to those students? Do you think that pottery just lends itself to that naturally, or are there some things that you find yourself doing sometimes to try to nudge those students closer?
I think creating that atmosphere first, you know…you’re going to make mistakes…you’re not going to be good right away. I have this quote up there, it’s just a little comic: “Dude, kind of sucking at something is the first step to being kind of good something.” So, I think it’s that mindset. And if we can get them to that mindset, they’re going to be so much more successful in other areas. Yes, you’re going to be bad, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be an artist.
Okay, so let’s talk about some of the projects that you like to do. What are some of the things you have done, some of your favorites, or some of the things you find your students really, really like?
Last semester in IVA, which is an intro class, we did stamps. So, we took little…basically linocuts, but the rubber version of it…then we created stamps and stamped them on a piece of paper. That was fun. They understood positive and negative shape, they got to use tools and things like that. So, that’s one of my favorites for IVA. 3-D design One, we start working with clay. So, I have them do a vessel (and they were focusing on form), and then I want them to create a design. That’s super fun to see what kind of form they create, and then what kind of designs that they do with it. So, I like one; it’s simple, but then it’s kind of open-ended that they can put their touch to it and make it their own.
How about the nature of being a teacher working in a hands-on environment like this. I’m peeking over into your studio, and there’s so much to prep and do. Tell me about a typical day for you…like what are you doing to prepare for the day?
My morning routine is super, super sacred. So, you know, it’s taking a shower. I eat like the same thing every morning, because I don’t like to have to think about it, and it’s just that routine. I do probably about 15 minutes of meditation, and I think that’s huge for me, because I think I can be a better teacher when I’ve taken care of myself. Then I can be who I need to be when I’m here. Then I get here, I like to say 7…but usually it’s between 6 and 7. So, I get to here super early. More than I like to admit. And then it’s pugging clay, loading and unloading kilns. The great thing is I have amazing peer tutors who help, and they help with the clay, and the kiln and things like that. So that helps a ton. Then, it’s getting my power points up; make sure I know what the day’s going to look like. Then, it’s about creating art and connecting with students, and meeting them where they’re at, and having conversations, and creating more art. Then, you know, the end of the day you try to pick things up as much as possible, then you go home, and kind of chill out and do home things. But it’s so much fun here, and the students are so fantastic, and I get to create every day. I was gone yesterday because I was sick, and I was so bummed out.
How many years have you been teaching here?
This is my 10th year teaching, but only my second year here at Roosevelt.
Where were you teaching before?
My first teaching job was in West Lyon, just across the border. I lived here in Sioux Falls. And then my husband and I moved to Philadelphia, and I taught inner city for two years, and I loved that. Then, I taught in my hometown of Storm Lake Middle School. There for four years. Then, my dream job opened up teaching ceramics at the high school level. So, here I am!
In the short amount of time that you’ve been doing ceramics, have you seen students who have developed an aspiration for pursuing it in a career, or displaying their work, or making it a real part of their lives?
Absolutely. First of all, we have an amazing program at Roosevelt, and our students have been very successful. I think with that success brings more success. We just have this little mentorship going back here. Like last year we had a student who was super successful (Sawyer), and then he took a few under his wing, and now those students are taking students under their wing, and it’s just this really positive community and vibe. It’s so cool, and awesome to see. Like yeah, I have one student who is here two periods a day, all morning, just throwing. He’s hopefully getting into selling some of his things. So, yeah, I’ve definitely seen that become a huge outlet for them, and my students become more successful in other areas because they have this.
Personal philosophy question. What do you think it takes for schools to create positive, strong art education communities?
I think first, good leadership. We have great administration who really supports the work we do, and lets us do what we do. So I think leadership is huge. And then I think it’s down to the teachers more passionate about what they do, and totally dedicated. I mean, Lisa, Al, Britt. We always put in way more hours than expected, but because of that we have a really strong department. That’s what it takes, you know. So, strong leadership, teachers who are passionate about what they do, and the students – they are just naturally fantastic. That’s just what this environment is; it’s a life. It’s the gives, it’s the takes, it’s the goods, it’s the bad, you know. It’s everything in between. As teachers, you just have to accept that life happens, and that’s how it’s going to be.