The Art of Learning
By Rich Shopes
Denise Davis-Cotton has a long history of arts-based collaboration. Before founding the Detroit School of Arts in 1992, she was the first teaching artist in residence for the state of Alabama. She is also the author of Losing My Mind over Education (Finding My Way Back to Me) and is a Milken Foundation internationally recognized educator.
As director of the Florida Center for Partnerships for Arts-Integrated Teaching (PAInT) based at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus, Davis-Cotton visits public and charter schools across Florida and organizes arts-integrated teaching conferences.
Regardless of the audience, her message is the same: The arts serve not only to inspire but to educate, and that by combining the arts with academic material, students will better understand and retain the material.
“The arts connect students to instruction and sustain learning after they leave their classrooms,” said Davis-Cotton, past president and current board member of Arts Schools Network, a nonprofit that supports arts educators nationwide. “Arts integration transmits a powerful message: partner, collaborate, plan, support, guide and teach to build students — not through their deficits, but through their strengths.”
The arts connect students to instruction and sustain learning after they leave their classrooms. Arts integration transmits a powerful message: partner, collaborate, plan, support, guide and teach to build students — not through their deficits, but through their strengths.
Arts-integrated instruction was pioneered at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus as an instructional method for education students training to become elementary school teachers. Recognizing the benefit of this application for wider usage, the Florida Legislature in 2016 voted to expand the program and establish the state’s first Center for PAInT at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus. Davis-Cotton was appointed director the following year.
“Serving as the first state center director for arts-integrated teaching is both humbling and rewarding,” she said. “The educators and teaching artists are the embodiment of the PAInT Center’s operational definition of arts integration. Arts integration is a diversity of knowledge, programs, experiences and aspirations that bring meaning to ideas and content through the arts and human interaction.”
The PAInT Center’s mission is rooted in providing opportunities for education, training and research. The PAInT Scholars program has enabled education students at the USF Sarasota-Manatee campus to engage in academic arts-integrated research and participate in internship experiences with PAInT community arts partners. As part of a grant from the Andrew Mellon Foundation and in partnership with New College of Florida, PAInT co-sponsored a six-part workshop series, The Business of Creativity, designed to present technology and creative learning to classroom instruction to engage students.
Throughout her career, Davis-Cotton has touted the benefits of the arts as part of the “well-rounded” concept, which teaches that students who are accomplished in math, science and other core subjects such as art, music, drama and literature turn out better prepared for college and beyond.
Arts-integrated instruction takes this concept a step further by bringing the arts directly into academic material. For example, a history lesson about the Emancipation Proclamation might include a visual arts lesson about the photograph or painting of Abraham Lincoln from that period. Students could note the shadows, lines, technique and organizational structure of Lincoln’s posture, pose and careworn eyes, observe his clothing and objects in the background or foreground, and then discuss what was happening when the photo or painting was created. The discussion may potentially turn to specifics about the historical and global connections of art and history related to the Emancipation Proclamation and Civil War.
“Teachers create a deeper understanding of a wide range of subjects because they involve students directly in the process of learning,” Davis-Cotton said. “When a student is connected to what he or she is learning, self-confidence, self-understanding and retention of information are increased.”
Arts-integrated instruction may involve theatre, music, visual arts, media arts, dance or any other art form. In one unique program, the Circus Arts Conservatory works with Davis-Cotton to create arts-integrated lessons on scientific principles. Students create juggling balls to determine mass and develop motor skills. They discuss inertia, force and acceleration, or they participate in a tightrope activity as a prelude to a discussion about gravity and weight displacement.
In addition to the Sarasota-based Circus Arts Conservatory, Davis-Cotton partners regularly with numerous other regional and statewide arts groups, including the Florida Studio Theatre, Manatee Arts Education Council, Embracing Our Differences, Realize Bradenton, Sarasota County Arts Education Partnership, Crayola-creatED, Booker Middle School, the Florida Council for History Education, The School District of Manatee County, the Origami Air Art Studio, the Florida Alliance for Arts Education and the Duval County Public School District.
In one recent teaching experience, she traveled to several elementary schools in West and Southwest Florida to teach playwriting, including the use of language, narration, conflict and character development. Based on the lessons, the children created their own plays and acted out the works.
In another teaching experience, students partnered with actors from the Florida Studio Theatre to develop playwriting techniques and make cultural connections in “Tomas and the Library Lady.” The students learned about the importance of books, how they spark imagination and creativity as well as the range of services libraries offer.
Davis-Cotton has logged countless miles to deliver learning opportunities in Florida schools since beginning her job in 2017. When she is not writing grants to further the reach of the PAInT Center, Davis-Cotton is on the road visiting schools and giving seminars to teachers about arts integration and how to incorporate the arts into lesson plans.
Before entering the classroom and deciding which teaching artist to bring, she and the teacher discuss how best to integrate high-quality lessons.
“We talk about the concepts, objectives and skills required to teach the lesson. Then we discuss ways to introduce these concepts and objectives academically and artistically so that the students will benefit from the lesson,” she said.
“When partnering with a teaching artist, the teaching artist and the educator each bring specific skills to the table. Together, they work to create a lesson that is impactful and memorable for students,” she said. “Retention definitely is a key benefit to arts-integrated instruction. Another is developing an appreciation for the learning process and the value of learning.”
- Rich Shopes