Professional Practice

Always Moving Forward (Ep. 189)

We always love to look for new things to try in our classrooms, and few teachers do it better than Caitlyn Thompson. In today’s episode, she joins Tim to talk about some of her amazing lessons, why she thinks of herself as a coach in the art room, and why she is always looking for fresh ideas to explore. Full Episode Transcript Below.

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Tim: Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by the Art of Education University and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.

I think we’re in the middle of about six straight weeks of brand new guests on the podcast and I think you’re going to love today’s guest. Caitlyn Thompson made her first appearance at the Art Ed Now conference back in July and she was an instant hit. She’s just a lot of fun. She has an engaging and magnetic personality and she does some amazing things with her kids. So my goal for the podcast today, more than anything, is just to let you get to know her. We will talk about her teaching, her own artmaking and let her share a lot of the things that she loves to do in her classroom. And I don’t want to spoil any of that. So we’re going to just jump right in. She is ready to go, so let me bring her on right now.

All right. And joining me now for the first time ever on the podcast. Caitlyn Thompson, AKA coach T. how are you doing today?

Caitlyn: I’m doing very well. Tim, how are you?

Tim: I am great. We’ve had a couple of weeks in a row now with new people on the podcast. I love that. And I guess since you are in here, we need to start with an introduction. So can you let everybody know a little bit about you, where you teach, the art, anything else that you want to share?

Caitlyn: Totally. I am Caitlyn. Caitlyn Thompson. I do indeed go by Coach T because I don’t feel like a Mrs. Thompson. I feel like it’s too, I don’t know, it’s just not me. But yeah, I teach in Natick, Massachusetts, but I live in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Shout out to all my commuters out there and yeah, that’s me.

Tim: Very nice. Now I know people loved your presentation at the Art Ed Now conference back in July. It was something that really got a lot of people talking. So I need to ask you about your topic for that, paper pottery and magazine pottery. Can you give us a quick description of what it is and the process you use to make it?

Caitlyn: Yeah. Well, I want to tell you about the origin story. Is that all right?

Tim: Please do. I love stories.

Caitlyn: Oh fabulous. All right. So my first year of teaching, I was hired about five days before the year started and 12 days after I actually started, I was hired … or not hired. I was pulled to mandatory jury duty for six weeks. So during that time, I had to prepare a lot of lessons and figure a lot of stuff out. So it was in October-ish and I was looking through pictures of awesome pottery strategies that didn’t involve clay because we don’t have kilns at the elementary district level in my district.

So I love paper as we’ve chatted about before. I do love books and papers. So I was like, how can I get this fourth-grade level in? And what I did is I saw this beautiful square magazine bowl and I thought maybe I can figure this out, but maybe not a square. I figured out how to make certain folds and tricks and made a little circular puck and I was like, all right, we’re somewhere. I molded it up and made my most magnificent magazine cup I’ve ever made. And then I thought, fourth-graders can’t do this. This is way too complicated. So I figured out, okay, newspaper. Got a lot of newspaper next to me here and I decided, all right, there’s no folding involved there. I can just cut these strips of newspaper and roll it and coil it into these little pucks and you just keep going around and around as big or as little as you want. And it’s really satisfying to push it through and you get this beautiful bowl or cup. And I was like, all right, got something here. The kids are going to dig it.

Thus newspaper pottery was born and actually paper pottery came to me from a student. He was like, “Hey Ms. Thompson, do you think I can use construction paper strips?” And I went, “Of course you can.” And thus paper pottery was truly born.

Tim: Nice. I love it. And I don’t know, you get such good results from that. And I tried it with my own kids at home and we actually did it at AOE headquarters too just because it’s so much fun. But it is such a simple process. It’s time-consuming, but you get to create these amazing things. So do kids usually have pretty good reactions to building those?

Caitlyn: They do. In the beginning, it is a frustration game of training your fingers to move in that certain way. So fourth grade is the youngest I would go with this. But I’m a big growth mindset promoter in my classroom. That’s why I go by coach T. I’m there to coach you through those hard moments, build those art muscles, make them stronger. So I will lead into newspaper pottery saying this might be frustrating at first but I need you to use that frustration as fuel. Build their art muscles. Your little fingers are working in ways you never thought they would before and after the first maybe two weeks, two classes, typically everybody is feeling pretty successful. And I’m there to guide and we’re all there to help each other.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool.

Caitlyn: Success rate is high.

Tim: Yeah, let’s get … well it’s something that we’re looking for, especially if, like you said, it’s a process. They can learn a lot, but that’s really worthwhile. I also wanted to ask you though, I know you were into bookmaking, which a lot of teachers don’t do and honestly don’t know how to do. I’ve never been trained. I never taught bookmaking. But can you tell us why you love doing bookmaking? Why do you think people should teach it? Maybe just some ideas of what you do in your classroom with it?

Caitlyn: Sure. Well first and foremost, for me, books, it’s an instant artifact. You get to create something, then you get to hold it and you can use it and it’s just absolutely fabulous to be able to hold something and touch something that’s solid that you made. I feel like when I go into museums and I see artwork on the wall, I’m like, I want to touch it. But you can’t touch it.

Tim: Yes.

Caitlyn: But with books you can touch them. And for me, when I learned bookbinding in college, I saved it for last, it was my senior year. I had been doing photography for several years, but the tactile experience was just, it opened a whole new world for me. So I actually went to a trade school, North Bennett Street school. If you don’t know it, you got to look it up. It’s an education in the hand craftsmanship. It’s absolutely a fabulous place to learn and grow. So for two years I sat at the bench learning how to make historic structures and then learning how to take them apart. And then you learn the leather, awesome designed bindings.

And again, what it all comes back to is that you can hold it, you can touch it, you can use it. The book doesn’t just have to be a vehicle for text. It can be a vessel for your artwork. It can be an altered book. It can be a sculpture. So especially when you start them in the class, which I actually don’t do too often. When my first teaching job was to teach bookbinding to middle school students and I am slowly working it into my elementary level, but what was incredible about it is that these students get to create something that’s theirs. Now they have the knowledge how to do it and they can just keep making more and more and more.

And with teachers, the first thing I would recommend anyone to start with is your covers because you can do anything. You can talk about color theory, you can talk about lines and shapes and patterns and you could do a landscape, it could be a self-reflection piece. Your cover’s where you start. And then I’d say folks just go for a three-hole pamphlet, just three small holes, little bit of thread, little … a blunt needle. Blunt needles, can’t recommend enough, no sharp needles. But in all my time teaching, we’ve never had any incident with the awls we would use to punch holes, but there is a requirement when you’re using an awl you have to burst into song, Mariah Carey, at least one during your bookmaking experience. But for those who are afraid of needles, a handsome accordion is just so delightful.

Tim: Nice. I like that. No, that’s a lot of good suggestions of ways to get started and which I think when you’re trying something new it can be a little bit intimidating. So yeah, just some basics is always good. So I think people appreciate that. I also wanted to talk to you about social media. I know you’re on Instagram, you have a pretty good following on social media, you’re active there. Can you talk about how that kind of helps your teaching or what role it plays in your teaching, I guess? And what you get from your interactions on social media?

Caitlyn: I get nothing but joy, Tim, my goodness, I love the Instagram community. They’re my favorite people ever. At first I was just suffering from that lonely island syndrome we all suffer from.

Tim: Absolutely.

Caitlyn: Oh yeah. It’s just I was like, man, I want more friends. Because art teachers, we’re a rare breed of people. So first and foremost it was to connect with other educators, but really to nurture my path as an educator because being stagnant is my worst fear. My brain moves a million miles an hour, so to have a community and tribe in which I can receive constructive feedback, share ideas, just make new friends is incredible for my practice because I love learning and it’s hard to learn on my own. That’s why I’m really into like coaching and mentoring.

And so you hear me talk a lot about coaching. My second biggest passion in life is weightlifting. So it’s all about building and growing. And that to me really, really goes with building and growing your community and your close-knit group of folks. So the friends I’ve made there have just been so inspiring and delightful and cheery and just lovely. And we’ve done art exchanges. I learned how to make different kinds of art and I’m inspired to try new things just because I see all of these folks doing it and I’m like, I could try that too. I can be brave. Yeah. We’re telling our kids to be brave, have a growth mindset. It’s really important for me to practice that too. So it’s like all right, I can text, I can type. Instagram is for me for sure. I can just really hope that I can be what others are for me. Because meeting y’all in March at the NAEA was the most fabulous experience of my adult life so far. Just meeting a bunch of celebrities. I was like, it’s Tim Bogatz and Cassie Stephens, oh my goodness.

Tim: No, it’s fantastic. I love, like you said, just being able to make those connections. And you see all these people that you’ve been talking to online. Then when you finally meet them face to face, it’s such a cool feeling. And I don’t know, I always run into people and I just … you want to just word vomit on them. Like you’ve inspired me with this and this and this and I love these ideas, and yeah, it’s a lot of fun. It’s something that’s really cool.

Caitlyn: I feel very lucky to have been welcomed into this community by you awesome people.

Tim: Well, I don’t know that we’re necessarily gatekeepers for anything but I think that art teachers are just very welcoming by nature and I feel like we do a good job of propping each other up and supporting each other and sharing ideas, which I’m not sure if that happens a lot of places. So I definitely love that.

Now I also wanted to ask you about making your own art. I know you do a lot of that, so can you talk a little bit about what you make and why it’s important to you to just consistently be making your own art and consistently be creating?

Caitlyn: Well, what I create definitely depends on the time of year. Because if you, yeah. Because fall time is when I really delve into crocheting. I know some folks would not consider that an art form, but I do. It’s creating. Any type of creating to me is an art form.

Tim: Anytime you’re being creative, anytime you’re making something, that is worthwhile, no two ways about that.

Caitlyn: Well as you may or may not have noticed, I tend to be a fast-paced human being. My brain does go very quickly and I find that when I am creating, whether that’s crocheting or working with alcohol inks, that’s what I’m really into right now as well. Alcohol ink art. Oh and the best part is, I’ve taught this to adults now and the common thread is, ooh, you really don’t have to be a quote-unquote artist to do this. I’m like yes, but you are an artist. You’re a creative being.

But for me, what it comes down to most is finding peace of mind. Crocheting, bookbinding. It’s meditative. I can do it quickly. There’s an end result that I can touch and use and that’s pretty spectacular to me. And I got into this to have that peace of mind and body. So it’s important to me to have those creative outlets. And I do it. It’s the only time where I’m actually quiet. I rarely listen to music. If I’m crocheting I’ll have TV, Netflix, whatever’s good on Netflix and HBO.

So that’s what I’ve been making. I love watercolor minis. That’s a new thing. Every year I try to make a new monthlong challenge. So yeah, last March it was watercolor minis and I did one of those every day. I always mention the fall. It’s because the farmer’s market comes up and for the past four years, I’ve done the farmer’s market where I sell my stuff and it’s lovely to just get out on a good Saturday and be like, hi, you crochet? No, you knit? Oh, I can’t knit, but I can crochet. And it’s just fun to just chat about people like saying, hey, you made this? Yeah, I made this book, I made this painting. I’m a real person and I do stuff. You can too.

Tim: Yeah, that’s really cool. And yeah, like you said, those conversations are totally worthwhile and I don’t know, if you can be inspiring for somebody, then that’s a wonderful thing. And then lastly, maybe this fits in with the inspiration category, but do you have any words of support or encouragement to try to get teachers to try something new? Whether they want to do some paper pottery or bookmaking or something else they haven’t done before. And why do you think it’s important to bring new ideas to the kids in your classroom? Why do you want to share those new experiences with them?

Caitlyn: That’s a great question. Words of encouragement. Oh man. The first thing I think of is relationship building and how important it is for us as art educators to build really authentic, positive relationships with the students we’re teaching. And the first step there to me is empathy. We’re their role models. We’re supposed to be modeling this growth mindset and willingness to try new things. So if we’re not practicing that in real life, can we really be effective and/or convincing to our littles, or bigs, I don’t know, whatever size student you teach. Just to be authentic and genuine for them. I think it’s really important to practice what you preach essentially, which is why I bring up muscle building so much in the art room. The kids really, really get into it. Last year Sarah, you know, art room glitter fairy, she taught me the art room mantra and I have found myself not only using that in my classroom but I’ve changed one bit to “I am strong.”

So I think a willingness to try something new and embrace that discomfort right alongside your students is incredible for them to see. Like you’re trying, you’re trying and maybe you fail. Maybe you don’t get it the first time but you try again. Try, try again. Because I think what stops so many from trying something new is that fear of failure. What if I try really, really hard and I still don’t get it? That’s really hard. And I’m really … as much positivity as I throw out there into the world or at least try to, I’m such a harsh self-critic. I’m very brutal. But that’s something that I’m working on, but just don’t be afraid. Just try. Because when was the last time you tried something for the first time and then … that’s a Tough Mudder line. Oh man, I totally stole that. But when was the last time you tried something and then somebody said, oh man. I mean never. That doesn’t happen. People are usually like good job, good for you.

So I just feel like don’t be afraid. Just find the tribe that’s also in that boat and just form a little happy family of we’re trying and we might be failing together, but we’re trying together and it’s great. Yeah. And it’s like just be a shark. Keep moving. Cue Shark Baby.

Tim: We can also not cue Shark Baby. And that’ll be okay.

Caitlyn: Oh man. Dominated my room last year.

Tim: I’m okay staying away from Baby Shark at all times. But no, in all seriousness though, I think that’s really good advice. And just don’t be afraid of failure. You have an art room, you have a safe space to try those things and if you can inspire your kids to do the same, I think that’s one of the best things that you can do as a teacher. But we’ll go ahead and wrap it up there. So Caitlin, thank you so much for giving me some time, coming on to converse. It’s been a lot of fun and hopefully, we can have you back again.

Caitlyn: Thank you so much!

Tim: That was a really enjoyable interview. I appreciate Caitlin’s mindset and her approach and what she brings to her students. Just teaching them to have confidence and to be creative and to develop as artists. So go give coach T a follow on Instagram. We’ll put that link in the show notes and if you’re looking for more on the paper pottery that we discussed, that’s a great place to see what she’s doing there. Learn a little bit more about that process. She also posts a lot of visuals with her own work, everything she’s creating, what’s going on in her classroom and some awesome Instagram stories. So like I said, go give her a follow. And Caitlin will also be presenting at the Winter 2020 Art Ed Now Conference. We’ll talk more about the conference in the coming months, but I can just tell you right now she is going to have an amazing presentation all about bookmaking and how you can get started on that with your students.

We have a lot of great presentations coming. If you want to see what’s going on at the rest of the conference or if you’re ready to register for just that amazing day of learning, you can go check it out at I will be hosting as usual and I’m really excited for the line of presenters that we will be rolling out with announcements over the next couple of months. So, like I said, go check it out at You can get a good feel for what that conference is all about, and if you’ve not been before, it is definitely worth your time.

All right. That is it for this week. Thank you so much to Caitlyn for telling us how to inspire and help our kids and help them build confidence and the skills they need. So take her advice, run with it, and have a great rest of your week.

Art Ed Radio is produced by the Art of Education University with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Next week, we will be back with art educator and author Liz Byron to talk about universal design for learning. I’m really excited about that one. So hopefully give us another listen then. Thank you.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.