Unlike many teachers who choose to work in schools because they were good students themselves, Michelle Carlson understands what it’s like to hate school. As a kid she couldn’t see the point of any of the material she was supposed to learn, and working for good grades without a clear reason wasn’t enough to motivate her. She did eventually graduate high school and went to college because her parents told her it was an important way to gain financial independence. She and her sister had to pay their own way, working at coffee shops and carpooling 40 miles each way to school at Chico State.

When she graduated, Carlson started a business, but eventually decided she wanted to help make school different for kids in the next generation. She started working at the Tehama County Office of Education and in her spare time created a makerspace in the office. Teachers can bring their classes into the makerspace and its success has sparked some schools to create their own. Older students can also sign up to become Makerspace Ambassadors, where they spend half their time working on passion projects and half their time creating useful things like promotional posters for local businesses and nonprofit organizations.

All kinds of students signed up for the Ambassador program — some were good students looking to add something to their college applications, while others struggled in traditional school and were looking for somewhere to be themselves. Most didn’t expect much out of the makerspace when they started, but soon found that having the freedom to pursue whatever they wanted with support to learn new skills was incredibly exciting.

Good students who felt like they were charging down a prescribed path because that’s what was expected of them found a sense of purpose and passion for new skills. And students who felt like failures began to see qualities in themselves they’d never recognized before. One such student, Ericka, never felt good enough, but her involvement in the makerspace gave her confidence to apply to college. Now she’s majoring in computer science and getting a credential to teach English language learners.

One day some incarcerated youth from the Tehama Juvenile Detention Facility were released to spend time in the makerspace. That group of students created a suicide prevention video on their own that afternoon with only minimal explanation of how the recording and editing tools work. They ended up winning an award for the video and county Probation Chief Richard Muench approached Carlson, who has since started her own company helping schools and organizations start makerspaces, about building a makerspace inside the walls of juvenile hall.

TEHAMA JUVENILE HALL MAKERSPACE

Innovative leadership at the juvenile hall and Carlson’s excitement for the project helped to make the makerspace a reality. It was funded through a partnership between the hall and the county Office of Education, and is open every afternoon if there are adult volunteers willing to be in the space with the youth.

“When they walk in the experience is something they’ve never had in their lives,” Carlson said. The makerspace isn’t school and it doesn’t feel like jail either. “Because it’s something different, it opens their minds and lowers their filters a little bit,” Carlson said. She’s worked hard to make the space feel cozy and comfortable, and they’ve built a culture of respect inside the room that is hard to find elsewhere in the detention facility.


One whole wall of the makerspace is painted with a “Defy The Odds” mural. (Courtesy Michelle Carlson)

“When I walk in here, I feel more free in here,” said one detained youth whose name we aren’t using due to official rules. He said there are a lot of rules in the detention facility. The youth have to walk between locations with hands behind their backs, but in the makerspace some of those rules are loosened and he has space to be creative. “Inside the classroom it’s the same thing as in the hall, you have to follow rules. I feel free when I come here.” In the makerspace this youth rediscovered his passion for drawing, something he now wants to study in college when he is released. He has also learned new skills like 3-D design and printing, and how to build a website.

“The poverty of experience that exists in their lives is so profound,” Carlson said. Many of the youth she has worked with didn’t know what web development was or that it could be a job. The makerspace is unique because the students have access to the internet, where they can learn from YouTube videos and read about the world. They also have access to real tools like Exacto knives, scissors and pliers. Adult staff members do check to make sure none of these potentially lethal tools are leaving the makerspace, but Carlson said the security stuff is almost invisible and they’ve never had a problem.

“They know how special it is and they honor and respect it,” Carlson said. In fact, regulars in the space often explain the expectations to newcomers, setting their own expectations and rules.

The makerspace has been a success because of the willingness of the hall’s staff to participate and the chief’s willingness to be flexible with scheduling and overtime to make sure adults are in the space. Deputy Probation Chief Mike Coley has been a dedicated makerspace volunteer and sees the effect on the young people he mentors.

“As soon as they cross the threshold into the makerspace, it’s a completely different kid,” Coley said.

He’s asked the kids he works with why they like the space so much and they tell him that they’ve been able to find new value in themselves by being given the freedom to be creative and the exposure to tools and skills they didn’t know about before. They’ve also seen talent in other incarcerated youth, hidden qualities that daily life doesn’t allow them to show.

Carlson said it's important that makerspaces have a variety of materials so students can choose what inspires them.
Carlson said it’s important that makerspaces have a variety of materials so students can choose what inspires them. (Courtesy Michelle Carlson)

“Being able to share this makerspace with them has really kind of rejuvenated our staff, too,” Coley said.

Many youth have a wary relationship with representatives of law enforcement, but when the adults and youth are creating together in the makerspace, they get to know one another as humans. They learn to trust one another and have formed bonds that extend outside the hall, an especially important element for preventing recidivism.

Coley said one of the biggest challenges he has recruiting staff as volunteers is that they don’t know much about the maker movement. Adults often feel like they have to have a specific skill they can teach if they’re going to be in the space. But Coley has found his most important role in the makerspace is to be supportive and to care about the kids. And Carlson says making sure the makerspace doesn’t feel directive, like the rest of these kids’ lives, is very important to its success.

“Flexibility has to be built in,” Carlson said. “They need to have choice and power to explore things and then they will blow you out of the water with what they can do with that choice and power.” Mentors can help ignite curiosity and excitement by bringing their personal passions into the room, but the time shouldn’t be too programmed. “It’s motivation that comes from within,” Carlson said. “So we want people who are passionate about doing amazing things with kids to be in there.”

Tehama County is fairly rural and often has fewer than 20 juveniles detained at any one time. But this small county is trying something unique; using the autonomy that is built into making to help young people who have lost their way regain a sense of self and see themselves as positive actors in the world. As with so many powerful examples of strong mentorship and powerful learning spaces, it took a passionate person like Michelle Carlson to see it through, and some visionary leadership from the probation office and a continued commitment from people like Mike Coley to make the space a reality.

Author

Katrina Schwartz

Katrina Schwartz is a journalist based in San Francisco. She's worked at KPCC public radio in LA and has reported on air and online for KQED since 2010. She's a staff writer for KQED's education blog MindShift.

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