Sara Medalen, 49, a Title I Teacher at Sunnyside Elementary School in Minot, North Dakota, is encouraging her students to read by combining two of every girl’s favorite things — books and braids.
Medalen, who has 26 years of teaching experience, degrees in elementary and deaf education, and a master’s in specific learning disabilities, is an interventionist who works with small groups of students in math and reading throughout the day. When her son, Mitch, now 21, was diagnosed with a learning disability in reading while he was still in school, the dedicated teacher says it “broke her heart.” She became determined to do anything and everything she could to help him find a love of reading.
That journey led her to start the Books & Braids program at her school. Medalen notes that the K-5 school where she teaches has the highest poverty level for schools in Minot, making it a challenge to ensure that students are meeting the standards set by the school. Fortunately for the staff and students at Sunnyside, Medalen explains that they have an “absolutely amazing” principal who encourages the teachers to think outside of the box to connect with students and open the doors of learning to them.
Noting that she has always loved reading with her students (“I would rather curl up with a kid next to me and listen to them read a good book than just about anything and there are so many fantastic children’s books out there!”) Medalen’s Books & Braids program got its start rather informally. During a scheduled reading group at school, a student whose mother had been out of town came to the group with hair “everywhere,” prompting Medalen to offer to braid it while she read to her. The student loved the experience so much that she came back the next day and shyly asked her teacher for another braid during reading time. And then came the lightbulb moment. “It was so special just listening to her read while I braided and it just popped into my head: ‘Book & Braids’,” says Medalen.
Within three days, the official Books & Braids program was up and running. The way it works is simple: students take home a note informing parents and guardians about the program and then they can sign up for an appointment slot at the “salon” as part of the after-school program.
Medalen explains that she tries very hard to make the experience similar to being pampered at a salon, especially for students who may have never gotten such an opportunity. She purchased a special appointment book, salon cape, and hair accessories, along with detangler and hair spray. When the salon is in “business,” she hangs up a sign letting students know it’s braiding time.
“I wanted to take the stress out of reading and just have the students read to me for the pure joy of reading, so at Books & Braids, I listen and we chat,” she says. “I’m the hairstylist, not the teacher.”
Students come in, choose a hairstyle (Medalen claims she is a master who can make some kind of braid work, no matter how short the hair), chat a little, then get to work reading aloud while their hair is braided. At the end, their new style is revealed, and they leave with a newfound confidence. “Their faces just seem to light up and the teachers have commented on the self confidence, excitement, and skip they have in their steps when they leave Books & Braids,” she says.
Medalen takes a matter-of-fact approach to dealing with students’ hair, making a visit to the nurse’s office if she notices anything amiss or moving within the strands. She also keeps sight of how big of an impact such a simple gesture can make — such as with one girl who expressed her gratitude to Medalen after breaking her arm and not being able to do her own hair while her dad left early for work in the oil field.
Books & Braids has received an outpouring of support from across the country, including people sending her donations of hair supplies and books. But after the story went viral, she did face some negative comments and backlash from those who tried to say that she was gender-biased or reinforcing the negative idea that girls should be focused on how they look.
“I appreciate and love all of my students for who they are, not how they look,” Medalen asserts.”I just wanted to have a special time with students and braiding is something I can do well and I know how soothing it is. There haven’t been any boys who have been interested, but if a boy wants to come to Books & Braids to have me braid or spiff up their hair while they read, I of course will say YES!”
Despite the naysayers, this dedicated teacher is planning to continue her program and is delighted to see other Books & Braids “salons” popping up at other schools across the country.
“Just thinking about all of the students who will benefit from that 1:1 time makes me smile,” says Medalen. “It’s all about the kids — they are the future [and] we need to treat them well.”