BOOKS & BRAIDS MAKES BIG IMPRESSION

Minot educator connects reading with a personal touch

By Kelly Hagen, NDU Director of Communications

Lily walks into the hair salon, and sits down in the chair. Her hair stylist asks her what she’d like to have done today.

“Ok, ma’am. Please have a seat in the salon. How are you today?” Sara Medalen asks.

“Good,” Lily says, in reply.

“Should we braid your whole hair today?” Medalen asks.

Sarah Medalen fixes her student Lily’s hair while she reads Dr. Seuss for Books & Braids, inside Sunnyside Elementary School in Minot, N.D.

“Yeah!” Lily replies, with excitement in her little voice.

“Do you want the same exact kind like you had last time?” she’s asked.

“Yeah!”

“OK, you know the drill with this. What do you have to do? Cover them up,” Lily is told, and she immediately covers up her eyes before a mist of product is sprayed onto her hair.

“Tell me if I’m hurting you,” Medalen says. “Do you want to read?”

“Sure,” Lily replies, and starts to read out loud. “‘And to Think I Saw It on Mulberry Street.’

“When I leave home to walk to school,

“Dad always says to me,

“Marco! Keep your eyelids up.

“And see what you can see.”

This is no ordinary hair salon, you see. This is Mrs. Medalen’s classroom at Sunnyside Elementary School in Minot. Medalen is a Title I Reading and Math teacher at Sunnyside, and a member of North Dakota United. Also, she is the “shop owner” of Books & Braids.

For the last two months, Medalen has been combing and braiding students’ hair in the hour before the classes start, while the students read books out loud. She is able to help relax the children while they embark on the very important task of reading, she can coach them, ask them questions and encourage them, and plus they are getting a top-notch hairstyle to go with the lesson.

“I thought about it one day,” Medalen said. “If girls come to school with their hair messed up, I like to kind of help them. And I don’t ever want any parents to think that I think their kid’s hair is messy. But one girl always had her hair braided so nice for school, and her mom was gone for a week, and she came to school and she had total tornado hair. She was the only one who came to me that day in a group of three or four, so I said, ‘Oh, do you want me to braid your hair for you?’

A couple months later, the same girl showed up alone for the early morning 21st Century Community Learning Center (CLC) Program, and Medalen again offered to braid her hair. And I said, ‘You read while I braid.’ While I was braiding her hair, I just thought of how soothing it was for me, too, and how much she loved it. So, then the wheels started turning, and I just came up with Books & Braids. And literally it was such an easy thing to do. It was so easy to implement. I didn’t have to do anything except talk to the CLC person, the morning, because I wanted to do it before school hours, not during school, to just talk to him about what he thought about it. And then I just made a little sign-up sheet for the girls, and I try to make it different from me being their teacher during the day.”

Medalen had a sign made for her salon by the sister of her son’s girlfriend. “I told her what I was doing, and she said, ‘Oh! I want to make a sign!’ It was just one of those teeny, little, easy kinds of concepts I came up with that took off like crazy.”

This picture of Sara Medalen braiding a student’s hair while reading, has been shared thousands of times on Facebook. (Photo courtesy of Carley Schiele)

She has been doing Books & Braids for about two months, and recently her friend, Kelly Boswell, posted a picture of Medalen doing Books & Braids on her Facebook page, with a description of what it was. “The student checks in at the salon and then reads to Sara while she combs and braids the child’s hair,” the caption reads. “The child walks away with a brand new comb, a fancy new hairstyle, and some personal attention from a loving adult. What a beautiful, low-stakes way to invite readers to read! And, better yet — there’s no silly stopwatches or unwanted stress. Just books and braids…”

The initial post was made on Tuesday, April 11, and at the time of this story’s publication on April 13, that Facebook post has been liked more than 17,000 times, shared 7,577 times and has gotten 910 comments.

“It’s so cool,” Medalen said. “Because I came home — I do a kindergarten program after school on Tuesdays — so Tuesday I got home, and my son said, ‘Mom! Get down here! You’ve gone viral!’ I was shocked.”

She said she has been receiving so many positive comments, and messages of support from her community. “I did just get an e-mail from a woman in Minot, who I don’t know. She said she saw it on Facebook, and she works for Farmers Insurance, and they’re trying to thank local heroes. So she chose me, and she wants to donate $100 worth of supplies. She said, ‘Tell me what you need. Do you need combs? Do you need hair ties?’ That was kind of neat.”

Medalen has really appreciated all the positive attention Books & Braids has received, and she hopes that by spreading the word on her idea will inspire other educators to try innovative ideas like hers.

“I think that’s what we need,” she said. “I think teachers need to get back to finding what’s unique about them, and what they can do. Then they can bring their own personal touch in, and go on their own strengths. I just think that brings joy in your day, if you can do that.”

She credits her administrator, Cindy Cook, with making Sunnyside a more inventive environment for teaching and learning. “I love my job,” Medalen said. “I tell my own kids at home, I just pray that they can get a job that I love as much as I do. This is my 26th year of teaching. I love coming to work every day. And I honestly think part of it is my administrator, too. She just makes this a great place to work.”

Sunnyside has the highest poverty rate among its students in the city of Minot. So the faculty and staff there face severe challenges in reaching these children who face so many difficulties outside of school.

Sara Medalen finishes up Lily’s braid as she reads aloud from “And to Think I Saw It All on Mulberry Street” by Dr. Seuss.

“We are always trying, and our teachers work so hard,” Medalen said. “And she just really took a lot of pressure off the table a few years ago, and said, ‘Don’t worry about what the tests say. Let’s worry about how we make people feel. Let’s worry about what we’re doing every day with these kids to make them feel, and then hopefully some of that will come.’”

Jackie is the little girl in the picture that has gone viral on Facebook, and she talked a little bit about what Books & Braids has meant to her, along with her newfound Internet fame.

“I happened to be braiding her hair one day, and Miss (Carley) Schiele works in here, and she was here and she just caught that picture,” Medalen said. “She wasn’t the first, but she was the one who got her picture taken that day.”

How does that make Jackie feel? “Happy,” she said.

“When we come in, she puts the thing that keeps your hair from falling on your shirt,” Jackie explained.

“I got an official cape from the hair store,” Medalen said.

“And then we get to pick our ponytail (holders) out, and our comb. And then when we’re done, we got to keep it, and the hair ties.”

Jackie picked two books to read while she was getting her hair braided: “A Mother for Choco” by Keiko Kasza and “The Hat” by Jan Brett. She said she enjoyed having her hair styled while she read, and would like to have it done again. Although reading isn’t her favorite subject.

“Not so much,” Jackie said. “My favorite subject is math. Because we’re learning … my dad’s teaching us how to build a race car, and it’s all about math and reading.”

“Very cool!” Medalen exclaimed. “I didn’t know that.”

Medalen hopes that her story will continue to gain ground online and, hopefully, arrive in the ears of the producers for the “Ellen DeGeneres Show” on TV.

“I was just dreaming last night and thinking, oh my gosh, what if that actually happened?” she said. “And how great for this school and these kids? Like I said, we’re the highest poverty school in Minot, so something like that would just be, like, wow! What a boost!”

The most important thing she’d like to accomplish, though, is to inspire others to read to children. She gets choked up when she talks about the possibilities.

“I don’t want to cry about it, but I just kept thinking about how one person can make a difference,” she said. “I definitely don’t want to say, oh, this is mine. I came up with this idea; this is what I do. I want anybody to … if they can just even make a difference for one kid. All those people — oh I get teary again — but all those people, if they can make a difference for one kid, it’s worth it.”