Inspiration Contagion

Something magical happens on the first day of a First Teacher class. Well, it’s actually the second or third class before the magic begins to reveal itself, but it always happens. This week twenty home based childcare providers showed up for Lesson One. Home based providers are allowed to offer daycare in their homes for up to four children in addition to their own. These particular ladies are all Spanish speakers so the class is taught in Spanish. The facilitator quietly and patiently helps some of them as they struggle to fill out a registration form and I notice one or two squinting at the contents of the parent folder as it is introduced. At one table, a participant becomes the informally designated scribe who writes each participant’s name on the covers of their folders.

We have learned, not to assume anything about anyone’s level of literacy skills. A wordless story book and three counting books are introduced during the first class. Not one participant says, “Oh I already have this one” or “My child loves this book.”

Quite a contrast to the comments I hear when readers of this column talk to me about their experiences. Most of the adults I know can tell me multiple stories about memories of their first books and their children’s early favorites.

Recently, a physicist told me that he would never have become a scientist if it hadn’t been for Ricky Brandt Boy Scientist, Tom Swift Jr., John Carter of Mars, and Master of the World. He explained that he didn’t actually learn to read until he got glasses in the third grade, but from an early age, his mother read to him stories that took place in Africa so he developed a vivid imagination and a love for literary language long before he could actually read by himself.

This leads me to wonder what it is in stories that inspires readers. Turns out that this is a very old question that interested Plato as well. His answer was that the Muse worked through the poet, then the actor to transmit inspiration to the audience. In today’s parlance this phenomenon is referred to as “inspiration contagion.” Todd Thrash, associate professor of psychology at William and Mary, published a study of inspiration contagion in the April edition of The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Thrash and his colleagues started by looking for links between creativity and inspiration. “Inspired writers wrote things that were of higher quality across the board, but only certain characteristics explain why readers are inspired” said Thrash. “In particular it’s insightfulness and pleasantness. The more inspired writers wrote things that were more insightful and pleasant and these texts were also more inspiring.

Turns out that people who score high for the trait of openness to experience are more prone to become inspired by high quality writing. The study analyzed writers’ and readers’ feelings of awe, excitement, determination, nervousness and fear and found that readers are drawn to pleasantness, originality, rhythm, insightfulness, and clarity in the stories they love and remember. Good children’s literature possess these same traits.

But, back to the magic that happens in First Teacher classes. The first book the facilitator demonstrates is Good Night Gorilla. The story is told through illustrations only so both parent and child get to construct the story together. This gives even the least literate parent the opportunity to experience the joy of reading with her child. So while, during the first class, our parents have very little to say about books and their children’s experiences with them, by the third class, everyone is able to talk about their children’s favorites. My favorite story from a Lesson Three class concerns a two and a half year old who enjoyed “reading” Good Night Gorilla so much that she rushed to the door and insisted that the delivery man stop and listen to her tell him the story.