img_3759by Jody Kerzman  |  Photography: Carley Schiele

Great teachers think outside the box, and are always thinking of ways to help their students. Sara Medalen might just be one of the greatest.

Sara is a Title 1 teacher at Minot’s Sunnyside Elementary School. Last winter when a student showed up without her hair fixed, Sara’s motherly instincts kicked in.

“This little girl’s hair always looked so nice but one week it was kind of a mess. She told me her mom was out of town so there was no one to fix her hair in the morning,” recalls Sara. “She was the only one in my small reading group that day so I told her if she would read aloud to me, I would braid her hair. It was so soothing to both of us. It was just a wonderful time.”

That sparked an idea: Sara started offering her braiding skills to other students. Books and Braids became a regular part of her before-school routine.

“I made a cute appointment book and changed my room a little so it felt more like a real salon than a classroom. I wanted it to be a stress-free time for kids to read. During the school day I focus on phonetics and vocabulary and comprehension. I wanted the kids to enjoy a book without worrying about all those things. I wanted them to attach reading with something really joyful and I wanted them to feel confident about themselves and give them a really good start to their day.”

A few weeks after Sara started her program, a professional consultant who was visiting Sunnyside posted a photo of Books and Braids to her Facebook page. The post quickly went viral.

“It was so overwhelming! I wanted to reply to all the comments, but I couldn’t keep up. So then I thought I would just ‘like’ every comment. There were so many comments, Facebook wouldn’t let me ‘like’ anymore. They thought I was a spammer!”

Sara has no formal hairstyling training, but she is a mom and an aunt; she fixed her daughter’s and niece’s hair regularly while they were growing up. She says it was a natural thing to do for her students. And naturally, good ideas catch on.

Books and Braids attracted the national media’s attention; CBS stations across the country carried the story. Sara has received generous donations from local businesses, including money to buy hair ties and a stool, so her classroom feels even more salon-like. But Sara says the best part is seeing her students become better readers, and getting emails from teachers all over the country, asking if they can use her idea in their schools.

As for Sara, she’s got even more ideas up her sleeve. She’s hoping to get some magazine subscriptions for her older students to read, which she says will add to the salon feel. And, she’s not limiting herself to just fixing girls’ hair—she has told the boys at her school if they’d like their hair fixed, they are welcome to schedule an appointment. Sara does just one student’s hair each day.

“I don’t want to rush through the students. One each morning makes it a special time for both of us. It’s the best part of my day,” Sara says.