For this year’s collection of our favorite education books, we’ve included a little something for everyone—including kids!—and they all center on one theme: hope. Navigating an antiquated educational system in a world that seems to thrive on stress and turmoil can lead to a feeling of helplessness. But we all know that educators are anything but helpless!

Sometimes, though, we need a little shoring up of our sense of agency, and that’s what these books do. If you feel like your imagination has taken a permanent hiatus—you just can’t bring yourself to think of another creative way to teach long division or save the world—look no further. If your students are having a hard time imagining how they can change the world, presidential inaugural poet Amanda Gorman has written a book just for them. For students and teachers who don’t need help imagining a cleaner, healthier world, but need a little guidance on how to start tackling climate change, social-emotional learning (SEL) expert Tom Roderick offers some ideas.

But, if in all this changing and saving the world, you feel like you and your students need to decompress and remember the joy of learning, we’ve got you covered. And, for school leaders who aspire to create the space for all this beautiful transformation to take place (but, really, on certain days, only want to crawl under your desks), there is a book just for you…finally.

We wish you a peaceful end to 2023—and hope you take time to breathe and imagine new possibilities!

The Polyvagal Path to Joyful Learning: Transforming Classrooms One Nervous System at a Time, by Debra Em Wilson

Norton Professional Books, 2023, 176 pages
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Why is everyone talking about the vagus nerve these days? This wandering bundle of fibers connects the brain and the body, sending safety-and-danger signals to us throughout the day. Because it plays a starring role in our bodies’ involuntary functions (like our heart rate, breath, and digestion), it’s worthy of our curiosity as educators.

Debra Em Wilson’s book, The Polyvagal Path to Joyful Learning, provides a biological framework for understanding, monitoring, and responding to the diverse array of individual nervous systems in your classroom—including your own. Wilson’s practical anecdotes, metaphors, diagrams, and accessible writing make her guide highly readable and relevant. If you strive to be a trauma-sensitive practitioner, and you believe in the power of relationships in the classroom, this book will reaffirm your vision and sense of agency.

Drawing on Stephen Porges’s groundbreaking polyvagal theory and Deb Dana’s theory-practice translation work for clinicians, Wilson represents the primary autonomic nervous system responses as a three-runged ladder: from the immobilizing dorsal vagal response (associated with helpless and hopeless feelings) to the mobilizing sympathetic state (linked to both fear and aggression) to the optimal sense of safety, calm, and eager engagement we experience at the top of the ladder through the ventral vagal response.

Three insights emerged for me while reading about nervous system function and our capacity for learning. First, polyvagal theory emphasizes co-regulation (regulating emotions with others) before self-regulation (or self-management), one of the core social-emotional learning capacities. Wilson highlights healthy, adaptive ways that we can “borrow and lend” our regulated nervous systems through structured academic play, movement, and stillness, for example.

Second, our capacity for resilience isn’t an all-or-nothing game largely dependent on the number of adverse childhood experiences we’ve had. It’s an open-ended, growth process of “befriending and retuning” the nervous system as we recognize our bodily states and draw on our ventral response resources through calming “safety rest stops” and ongoing repair of day-to-day “misses” or “ruptures” with one another.

Finally, this approach expands the notion of the mind-body connection to a dynamic “mind-body-world” exchange where things like tone of voice, a soft gaze, a friendly gesture, and an open posture can make us feel safer, more joyful, more motivated, and engaged in learning and growing together. —Amy L. Eva

Something, Someday, with words by Amanda Gorman and pictures by Christian Robinson

Viking Books for Young Readers, 2023, 40 pages

There is much that is hard in this world. An ever-worsening climate crisis, increased poverty and homelessness, violent wars…all problems that feel too big to fix, especially for young children. This beautifully illustrated picture book by presidential inaugural poet Amanda Gorman reminds children (and all of us, really) that we do have the ability to make a difference. It offers up hope that when we come together, and build upon small acts of kindness, we can find beauty and create change in the world.

This book touches on themes that Greater Good has focused on this year: having the courage to take action when things feel hard or scary; the experience of awe that comes from collective effervescence (the feeling that arises when we work with others toward a common goal); approaching the world with openness, wonder, and curiosity; and, lastly, the importance of community, connection, and compassion for those around us. —Mariah Flynn

Teach for Climate Justice: A Vision for Transforming Education, by Tom Roderick

Harvard Education PR, 2023, 296 pages

After leading the Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility for 36 years with a commitment to furthering research-based programs in SEL, restorative practices, and racial equity, progressive educator and trailblazer Tom Roderick turns his focus to the struggle for climate justice. He argues that the “primary purpose of education at this turning point in history must be to nurture a generation of courageous, intelligent, and wise non-violent fighters for climate justice.”

His vision incorporates the work of outstanding educators who are attuned to their students’ needs and the needs of humanity during this time of environmental crisis, with the wisdom of luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Joanna Macy, Parker J. Palmer, and many others who have led the way toward peace and justice for all.

A central theme of his book is that we must take the cares and concerns of our young people seriously. As climate activist Greta Thunberg has said, her generation is grieving over the threat to their future and is enraged at adults for “standing by while the house burns.” Teach for Climate Justice is a call to action—“an urgent plea for educators everywhere to rise up and demand the time and resources needed to express our caring by addressing our students’ true needs…[and] transform the dominant mind-set that sees our fragile environment as a field for unlimited exploitation into one based on humility and respectful reciprocity.”

What Roderick has learned in his long career advocating for racial equity and social responsibility provides a framework for this transformation. Each chapter describes one of eight dimensions for creating and sustaining environments where students understand the power of civil resistance, the ability to think intelligently about solutions to pressing needs, and the importance of caring for one another along the way. It is both an inspirational manifesto and a clear set of developmentally appropriate teaching strategies, examples of best practices, and links to resources for the classroom and school.

Although concern for the climate crisis may lead to anxiety, fear, and anger, Teach for Climate Justice describes a way forward where love, joy, and hope animate the work and provide inspiration and motivation to manifest a just and sustainable future for all. —Margaret Golden

Learning to Imagine: The Science of Discovering New Possibilities, by Andrew Shtulman

Harvard University Press, 2023, 352 pages

There is a misconception in popular culture that we become less imaginative as we get older, and that our capacity for imagination declines over our lifespan. In Learning to Imagine, cognitive scientist Andrew Shtulman argues the opposite: All that we learn through our lives serves to enhance our capacity to be imaginative. Knowledge actually powers imagination, and, as we live, learn, and reflect, we continue to grow our capacities to imagine throughout our lives.

Shtulman explores how, contrary to popular belief, children are not the most imaginative among us. Through a deep dive of research, the book illustrates how children’s capacities for imagination are actually fostered through education, not in spite of it; in fact, it takes care, learning, and support to nurture children’s imagination.

Replete with research across cognitive development, psychology, and education, the book is an inspiring and empowering nudge to nurture our knowledge banks to open up more possibilities, and affirms the importance of education in all its forms, from traditional pre-K–12 to Montessori, from unschooling to self-directed learning and higher education.

“Let’s stop thinking of imagination as a limited resource, found only in the minds of young children, and start thinking of it as it really is: a nascent capacity shared by all and expandable by all through learning and reflection.” —Lauren Lee

Emotional Intelligence for School Leaders, by Janet Patti and Robin Stern

Harvard Education PR, 2023, 304 pages

When I left my position as a burned-out school leader, I embarked on a healing journey, determined to figure out what had happened. So much of what I’ve learned along the way—from my doctoral studies to my work at Greater Good—is encapsulated in Janet Patti and Robin Stern’s Emotional Intelligence for School Leaders. As school leaders, we can have the best of intentions to do right by our students and staff, but navigating the challenges of a flailing educational system and the unmet needs of so many people—without taking any of it personally—requires a skill set not taught in most principal training programs.

Patti and Stern have done a great service to the field with this book. Not only do they acknowledge and empathize with the almost impossible job of a school leader (Patti herself tells some harrowing stories from her time as a leader), they also offer solace and hope and actual tools that leaders can start using today. Half the battle, they argue, is convincing policymakers and others that these skills are a vital necessity if schools are to succeed.

“Many believe that the purpose of school is to solely support and develop academic achievement,” they write, “Further, it’s not widely understood that an emotionally intelligent focus in a supportive environment begets high achievement. And the lack of time is always a culprit, especially in view of the ongoing pressure to achieve.”

For school leaders who want to improve their emotional intelligence, growing one’s self-awareness is the first step. Patti and Stern urge leaders to do the inner work: School leaders need to develop the “capacity to tune into your feelings, sense inner signals, understand what you are feeling, and recognize how your emotions impact your ability to focus, make decisions, and maintain relationships.” From there, they offer concrete self-management and relationship skills, along with stories from the field and reflection questions for those who aren’t sure where to begin.

Overall, this book should be required reading (and using!) for all pre- and in-service school leaders because “the practice of creating joy for yourself and others is uplifting for a school climate and serves as a protective factor for both self and others.” —Vicki Zakrzewski

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