Oakland Art Teacher Thi Bui Urges Students to Draw, Think Outside the Box

Thi poses questions for her students to explore.
Photo: Debora Gordon, Oakland Voices

By Debora Gordon

Thi Bui, an art and digital media teacher at Oakland International High School, described herself as “a little reckless. I break a lot of rules. I’m very comfortable letting go of the reins if there is enthusiasm. To some people, it might be a little freaky when students aren’t all sitting down at the same time, but I’m really good at getting out of the way so students can create projects.”

Her larger goal in teaching is self-sufficiency. “I want to spread the joy of figuring things out for yourself,” she said, “of problem-solving, of having your own ideas.” Her big project for this school year – at a school where everyone is an immigrant – is called “Nation of Immigrants,” for which students conduct oral histories.

Art is essential to the curriculum. “One of the biggest things we get out of art is problem-solving,” Thi said, “thinking outside of the box and the ability to fail successfully, revise your work and keep at it until you get the product and results you want.”

One of the greatest rewards of teaching, she said, “is the privilege of getting to guide someone, where they listen to you, and you’re a big influence on them.” Now in her 11th year of teaching, she’s more able to manage the demands of the classroom. “I used to have do put in 20 to 50 hours outside of class. Now I’m more able to plan while I’m in the shower, and I’ll actually only work when I feel like I’m doing good planning and I’m enjoying myself more with my family and can build on other prior experience.”

Last year, Thi taught a more traditional art class, with a focus on graphic novels. “People thought I would be sad about not teaching art, but I’m happy about the separation of teaching art from my art life.” As a practicing artist, Thi explained, “It’s a place where I get to work out my issues and I don’t have to tell anyone. It’s a completely internal road where I can work out my issues and anxieties.”

Images from Thi’s sketch book
Photo: Thi Bui

Born right before the Vietnam War ended, and immigrating here from Vietnam at the age of 3, Thi’s immigration experience is quite different from those of students coming here in their teens. But she addresses many of the same themes students explore in her classes, such as relationships, history and empathy. “The book I’m working on is an immigrant story. It gives a lot of weight to what happens before immigration, to the assimilation process, the American dream. We rely on our historians’ perspective of what happened in those countries, so I have grown up really frustrated with Vietnam War movies. And they’re all wrong!” Thi felt as a Vietnamese immigrant herself, she needed to bring to light some of what happened from a Vietnamese perspective.

A retrospective collection of Oakland International High School student immigration stories were collected in an anthology, available at Amazon.  You can see more of Thi Bui’s art at www.thibui.com.

Author Profile

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.”


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    Education Adviser

  2. Hello, my daughter loves art, she’s 12 years old and loves to draw. Where can I find a art teacher or class in Oakland(Bay area)

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