Can a Juvenile Hall Makerspace Help Teens Suspend Their Disbelief?

Education Workshop
Can a Juvenile Hall Makerspace Help Teens Suspend Their Disbelief?

This story was originally published on the Future Development Group blog, and is republished here with permission.

Willing suspension of disbelief… in education.

Interesting phrase, isn’t it? Unless you’re a fiction writer or a movie producer, chances are you haven’t heard this phrase before. Willing suspension of disbelief is defined as a willingness to suspend one’s critical faculties and believe the unbelievable; sacrifice of realism and logic for the sake of enjoyment.

I hadn’t heard this phrase until a couple of years ago when I came across author and TED speaker, Mac Barnett’s TED Talk: Why a good book is a secret door. It was this TED Talk which inspired me to think differently about places of learning. Why couldn’t they, too, serve as a secret door; to one’s own self, and a wide open universe of possibility? As it turns out, they can.

I used this concept to imagine and create the first free access makerspace in our region…and this crazy thing happened: It became a secret door to amazing learning experiences and community growth. Being in the space causes a certain shift to happen, and while you’re there, you feel like anything is possible. Anything. Learning is different… joyful, intriguing, and energizing. In that room, there’s an entirely new and untapped world of possibility.

Several weeks ago, Deputy Probation Chief Mike Coley and I presented at the reMAKE Education Summit, put on by our amazing friends at the Sonoma County Office of Education. We shared the nuts and bolts of how we created a makerspace in the Tehama County Juvenile Justice Center and while we were sharing, Mike said something that, until that moment, I was unaware of. He said, “There are only three inches of concrete separating the makerspace from the rest of juvenile hall, and I’m not sure exactly how to explain it, but when we cross that threshold, everything is different, in a really good way.” He went on to explain it further saying, “Once we’re in the makerspace, everyone recognizes this is a place to be inspired, creative, and collaborative.” The students who spend time in there tell us that they don’t normally speak to each other much in the other areas of the facility, but they do in the makerspace. In working on projects, they get to observe others’ work, and in the process, they realize they have more in common than they ever knew before. One student said, “I like to draw, and I never realized how many other kids in here liked the same things until we were all doing them in the makerspace, together.”

Mike adds a few more observations about what happens when kids and adults cross the threshold:

  • Non-judgmental: One of the basic expectations of the makerspace is to be respectful. This is often a difficult task with juveniles who are incarcerated.
  • Non biased: In a juvenile hall, the youth often feel they have something to prove to each other, or even themselves. These things dissipate.
  • Desire to learn or just make: The kids have time to experiment with what they are capable of doing in an environment they are comfortable in.
  • Connection with peers or other adults: The makerspace provides an environment that fosters openness and understanding between juveniles and adults, and especially adults wearing badges who are sometimes considered the enemy.

The normal hierarchy and dynamics that exist inside of a locked detention facility fall away; stepping across that threshold is like stepping into freedom. Not in the standard sense of the word, but in the sense that everyone’s minds are free. They are free to explore and create, and to see beyond their current reality into the possibility of a different life, something better. Everyone is willing to suspend disbelief and that willing suspension allows remarkable things to happen.

Inside the makerspace at juvenile hall, we’re all just human beings, on the same level, exploring interesting things, helping each other, and feeling a true sense of joy in the process. One of the students who has been there to experience it since the first day of operation told me yesterday that, “in the makerspace, I feel free. I feel happy. And I feel like I’ve learned things in here that I can use to create a life for myself, a real future.” For many incarcerated youth, the makerspace gives them an opportunity to see a future they never thought was possible for “people like them.”

Hearing stories like this from Mike and the kids has profoundly impacted my understanding of this work, and continues to deepen my dedication to seeing that all kids have access to learning that allows them to see more possibility, beyond the normal constraints of the reality in which they currently live. Seeing more options beyond the status quo is the first step in creating a new reality; one in which every precious human being is able to find their passion and live the life of their dreams. I believe in these kids just as much as I believe in the amazing colleagues I get to work with every day and it is that belief that will help them to believe in themselves.


Most people don’t allow themselves to think beyond their current reality. Doing so seems frivolous, out of reach, or irresponsible. Having hope for something that may never come travels hand-in-hand with the fear that it may only lead to disappointment. I’ve heard these words from lots of people along my path. “You’re crazy for quitting your ‘good job.’” or “You’re really putting yourself out there, what if you fail? I could never bear that feeling.”

I say if you’re committed to doing something really big with your life, then failure is a natural part of that reality. And when you do fail? Do it spectacularly! Fail where people can see you, and then also let them see you get back up and continue on, smarter, stronger, and better because of the challenges you’ve experienced-and conquered. I ran a Kickstarter campaign to fund the book I just published, and it failed. Although I raised more than $22,000, I didn’t get one red cent because I didn’t reach the goal. Did that stop me from writing the book? No. Did it stop the book from being successful? No. Did it teach me a lot about what it means to fail publicly and spectacularly? Yes. And because of that, failure is no longer a scary demon that haunts my ideas. It’s just a normal little piece of being human.

My Big Hairy Audacious Goal is to create change in our system that leads to every single young person in our country having the opportunity to experience joyful education that allows them to find and pursue their dreams. I believe this is possible, for every kid, and I will work tirelessly to bring that completely crazy idea to life.

Many thanks…

There are several people out there in the world, whom I’ve never met, and who have never met me, but have inspired me to see things differently and to see that there is a whole universe of possibility that exists right under our noses and all we have to do to make that possibility become reality is to suspend our normal filters, suspend our disbelief just enough to broaden our options. Thank you Mac Barnett for being one of those people!

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Michelle Carlson

Author and consultant, Michelle Carlson, is an internationally recognized leader and change agent in education. She is passionately devoted to building a better, brighter future for all, believer in the power of “we” and lover of all things making.

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