Denise Davis-Cotton's Mission To Create Truly Inclusive Curricula
Growing up in Alabama in the 1960s, Denise Davis-Cotton often wondered why her textbooks contained so few voices of Black people and other people of color. How could the contributions to science, history and the arts of so many Americans go virtually unnoticed?
“At some point you have to ask, does the content speak to the student, can the student connect with the content the teacher is providing? For too long in our educational system that hasn’t happened, and students have suffered for it,” says Davis-Cotton, director of the Florida Center for Partnerships for Arts-Integrated Teaching (PAInT) at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. While these questions persist today, a growing number of educators, including Davis-Cotton, are working to create new teaching pedagogies to correct these omissions and shine a light on the contributions of Blacks, Latinos and other historically marginalized groups.
Working with educators from Booker High School in Sarasota, Davis-Cotton helped create a curriculum that spotlights contributions of Black Americans and other minorities. To further assist students, she collaborated with the Sarasota-based Circus Arts Conservatory to introduce arts-integrated teaching, an instructional method that uses the arts to communicate and explain academic content.
“It’s not about race, it’s not about gender. It’s about belonging. It’s about inclusion. It’s about seeing people and hearing their voices. It’s about a lot of deep, deep listening.”
The pilot initiatives are still in early stages and the results won’t be known for months. For now, educators are reviewing the curriculum and focusing on teacher training and classroom evaluation. However, they expect that with the enhanced teacher training and a more diverse and equitable curriculum, minoritized students will become more engaged with the content, which will lead to improved student proficiency.
“When you look at the drivers of racial disparities, you have to start with schools and whether societal movements and the contributions of diverse individuals are addressed or not addressed adequately in the curriculum,” Davis-Cotton said. “We know that the material in today’s textbooks was written some time ago and that much of that content is lacking when it comes to the contributions of Black and Brown individuals.
“What we’re doing at Booker,” she said, “is looking at the framework of the curriculum to see how we can equalize that content in order to teach students about these marginalized individuals and social movements in an equitable way.”
This isn’t the first time Davis-Cotton has been asked to develop programming around diversity, equity and inclusion. In 2020, she received $30,000 in three separate grants to produce a diversity program for arts organizations and schools in Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The result, an online “train-the-trainers” course called IDEIL (Incorporate Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Leadership), was implemented regionally and involved numerous organizations, including the Circus Arts Conservatory, Florida Studio Theatre, New College of Florida, the Ringling College of Art and Design, State College of Florida, the Visible Men Academy charter school, the Westcoast Black Theatre Troupe and Booker Promise, a college-readiness program at Booker High School.
Similarly, as director of PAInT and chair of Manatee Arts Education Council’s (MAEC) executive committee, Davis-Cotton collaborated with arts groups to create arts-themed videos for parents and children to view online last summer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The videos explored arts integration, Juneteenth – the June 19 holiday commemorating the emancipation of slaves – and the moving Langston Hughes poem “I, too, am American,” which examines racism.
Additionally, during a meeting of the Sarasota-Manatee Human Resources Association in May 2021 the professor gave a stirring address, calling attention to the importance of diversity, equity and inclusion in hiring practices across all workplace levels.
“People don’t leave jobs, they leave leaders,” she told the hiring professionals. “It’s not about race, it’s not about gender. It’s about belonging. It’s about inclusion. It’s about seeing people and hearing their voices. It’s about a lot of deep, deep listening.”
While issues related to diversity and inclusion have made Davis-Cotton more in demand lately, the longtime professor says she has long promoted those values, just as she promotes the arts.
“It’s been my life’s work,” she says.
Examples of this resonate throughout her career. Among them, she founded and served as the first principal of the Detroit School of the Arts (DSA), a renowned arts and academic high school in midtown Detroit. One of four magnet schools in the city, DSA was recognized by the Kennedy Center as a Creative Ticket National School of Excellence and by Newsweek magazine as one of the top public schools in the United States for its academic and artistic excellence and community outreach.
Before founding DSA in 1992, Davis-Cotton served as the first teaching artist in residence for the state of Alabama and she is the author of “Losing My Mind over Education (Finding My Way Back to Me).” She also is a Milken Foundation internationally recognized educator.
“When I look at a school curriculum and look at the history of marginalized communities and see that they are not recognized in the curriculum, I want to examine how those gaps exist and how to eliminate those injustices in the curriculum,” Davis-Cotton said. “It’s up to all of us as teachers to engage with the curriculum structure and address injustices. ... It all starts with schools.”