The Cycle of Belonging and Culturally Responsive Teaching in IRW

By Tina Shanahan and Phip Ross

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) matters in our classrooms because acknowledging and responding to students’ unique interests, strengths, and needs creates a stronger learning experience for everyone.  In this post, Tina Shanahan and Phip Ross discuss how they incorporate elements of DEI in their IRW classes.  

Tina’s Experience 

A group of colleagues and I recently enrolled in a course from CoopLew called Creating an Equity Minded Framework for Online and Traditional Courses.  CoopLew is a DEI consulting group that worked with our college on a cultural climate survey.  The course prompts educators to examine course design, materials, and instruction with an equity mindset.  

CoopLew’s cycle of belonging (see image below) highlights the relationship between inclusion, diversity, equity, and belonging. 

The Cycle of Belonging


Each element of the cycle of belonging is evident in culturally relevant integrated reading and writing (IRW) classrooms.  

Inclusion is a Choice

IRW instructors choose inclusion by valuing the different perspectives and experiences each student brings to the class.  A key component of deep reading is making connections between the text and one’s own schema.  To not only be culturally relevant but also to be an effective IRW teacher, we need to show students how to build bridges between course materials and their lives.  This means we need to invite all students to share their stories.  Stories of resilience, character-building, pride, and other values can provide a starting point from which to make learning relevant to students and build on existing schema.  Even an activity as simple as a Before/During/After reading guide can give students some opportunities to share parts of their stories and include their personal lives, culture, and interests in class. 

Diversity is a Fact 

IRW instructors treat diversity as a fact by noticing and appreciating difference.  One way we can do this is by including a diverse range of voices in our course materials.  I recently realized that my developmental IRW course could represent more diverse voices.  A unit on “The Way We Learn,” includes readings from Carol Dweck about growth mindset and Angela Duckworth about grit, links to articles about student success tips, information on how memory works, and effective study habits.  With a few exceptions, the resources come mostly from white women.  I am deliberately seeking out more diverse voices to include as required reading.  If you have any suggestions, please share them in the comments!   

Equity is an Experience 

IRW instructors can provide an equitable experience for all students by eliminating barriers so all students can experience success.  Offering materials in a variety of formats is one way to be more equitable and allow students to learn in a way that serves them best.  Formats may include a variety of options for class lessons including synchronous instruction (in person or via Zoom, currently), slides and notes for the lesson available online, reading materials, and/or videos with closed captions and transcripts.

Equitable practices also include offering opportunities for student output as well.  For example, why not offer students a voice or video response option to assess reading comprehension?  IRW is effective because it highlights the connection between reading and writing, but sometimes reading competence is hidden by a student’s struggles with writing.  Students who feel more comfortable expressing themselves verbally may be better served by the option to talk through a reading using FlipGrid instead of writing a summary when written communication isn’t the primary learning objective.   

Belonging is a Feeling 

Students feel a sense of belonging when instructors commit to inclusion, appreciate diversity, and provide equitable opportunities.  According to CoopLew’s Cycle of Belonging, students are willing to participate and engage when they feel like they belong.  Engagement is the only way to develop reading and writing skills, so we need to do everything we can in our classrooms to make every student feel like they belong.  The assignment Phip describes in his experience below provides a good example of how we can embed activities that build belonging into IRW coursework.  

Phip’s Experience

The essay, which served as the address to AERA (2006) by Gloria Ladson-Billings, was a two-by-four to my skull. She walloped me with some challenging truths about history and education. “From the Achievement Gap to the Education Debt: Understanding Achievement in U.S. Schools” began the wake-up call that continues to roust me. Challenges on the scale she describes—historical, economic, sociopolitical, and moral—clearly delineated issues I will always be challenged by in my role as a community college developmental English faculty: What am I learning about and with my students and what space am I providing for that? Ladson-Billings has been one of the first to influence culturally responsive pedagogy. 

Who & What is IRW Curriculum?

Anything is a prized posestion when my uncle gives me something I.e. magnets from their trips to galveston islannds texas myrtle beach south carolina a t shirt from vegas a key ring from mt rushmoore and rio grande in brazil my uncles old 1997 pontiac sunfire key. – fall 2020 student

Students complete a writer’s profile and an interest inventory in most composition classes. I learn about them. They can see themselves in the details they share. They are being asked to add a list of topics they can choose to build on as long as they have a total of a dozen items.

Important people. Most challenging experiences. Skills. Life goals. Important Places. Worst or best jobs.

Students interview one another based on one item from the inventory and write a one-page “mini-essay”. It’s quite a challenge to listen, ask questions, and build the profile. It sets the bar in terms of comprehending instructions, critiquing a sample to guide the process, and using a rubric for assessment. More importantly, I hope the experience makes salient student identity unrelated to their academic history as readers and writers or their placement scores. They are talking, asking, listening to one another. I should be listening, jumping in occasionally with my own questions. Learning.

Early on, over-lapping the structured mini-essay, is the “I am from” or an origin story where this inventory can support this biographical introduction.  I sneak in MLA formatting but the form of the composition is their choice: paragraphs or more poetry/lyric. My examples invite non-English expressions. These are read aloud. Everyone responds in written notes. These opening activities a slam dunk on several levels. So far, the class is being co-authored by students. They are providing the content, their voices are providing most of the noise. Their text is getting the attention. Social and written norms should be taking shape where students are at the center. Students are finding footing on the heels of these successes.

“I am from” was my poem that I had written to describe who I am as a person and who is really [name]. I have put my feelings into words to share with my classmates in class. I have put my feelings into words.

While the big concern in an IRW class is the relationship students can develop with text as readers and writers in-process, consider the first focus on how the instructor can learn to read and start to understand who these individuals are: good readers depend on good background knowledge. We start from scratch on Day 1 every term. Moments will occur when we will be ineffective and that sneaky little “deficit model” tickles the reptile brain, patience drains, frustration climbs up the throat. The very best among us will deny the student. Maybe not three times. To ward against this ultimate personal and professional failing, I have to be the learner myself and figure out a lot more about who I am working with and how I can support them.

This is relational work in terms of building an atmosphere of acceptance that will create a field of brave students willing to ask questions, share their mistakes, read aloud from the book they’re struggling to understand, share their own writing.

It is about building some safe space. No judgment zone. Welcome to the learning party. We are going to know who we are. This is where a growth mindset is a possibility. And it is about well-being in the IRW class.

Finally, part of these initial forays into our lives, reading one another, getting our bearings for the work ahead, is also “mining the text” of our lives and appreciating that experience and what it can teach us. On writing, Charles Wright nails it: “Language is the element of definition  …  It puts the coin between your teeth. It whistles the boat up. It shows us the city of light across the water.” Recognizing places, people, and events, are the coins, the concrete nouns which ring with a truth and help us navigate the path ahead together.

None of this guarantees culturally responsive teaching and inclusion, let’s be clear. It’s an opportunity for students to bring their complicated lives with them to class and know, for themselves, first, that they are not any one test score, stereotype, kind of student, or other demographic that has labeled and threatened them with limitations. 

And if we are going to make meaning moving forward, really making connections to texts we read, we can start with opportunities to connect to one another. 


Universal Design for Learning: What is Culturally Responsive Teaching

The Writing Assignment That Changes Lives

 An Ongoing Process

Resources on culturally responsive teaching are quick to point out that there is no quick-tip guide to transform your teaching in a few simple steps.  Instead, the Cycle of Belonging and Culturally Responsive Teaching are guiding principles.  Equitable instruction is a mindset.  We can never plan for all the differences our individual students bring to our class each semester.  But by examining our teaching through the lens of DEI and CRT, we can create courses where students feel like they belong.  

Tina Shanahan
Dr. Tina Shanahan is a reading and writing instructor at Gateway Technical College in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Her work focuses specifically on teaching and learning in co-requisite models of developmental education and the integration of reading and writing. She lurks on academic Twitter as @TinaTeachesEngl.


An English instructor at Southeast Community College in Lincoln, Nebraska, Phip Ross is a teacher, writer, activist, and musician. To contact Phip, please email



Your Own Personal Cheerleader:  Helping Developmental Students Advocate for Themselves


By Melanie Ward, M.Ed.

I share a story with my students every semester and it goes like this: 

Growing up, I had an undiagnosed learning disorder that made mathematical concepts very challenging for me.  I attended high school in a small town in Texas, and the school system being what it was in the late 80’s and early 90’s, my mathematical inability was chalked up to nothing in particular and I was placed in lower level math classes. How low, you might ask? I graduated high school without ever taking basic algebra.  

I started college right after graduation. Of course, based on my placement tests, I registered for developmental math. Although I was aware that I lacked many of the skills needed to be successful in math, I sat in the class day in and day out, never asking questions or asking for help when I didn’t understand. Instead, I tried to shrink away to not be noticed; to not be called on and embarrassed. I’m sure you can guess what grade I earned that semester.  

I don’t shy away from telling my students I have an F on my transcript.  I don’t even shy away from telling them I have two F’s on my transcript as a result of doing the exact same thing the following semester. The next part is what is most important. I share with my students that the following semester, after two sobering failures, I finally decided to advocate for my own success. I went to my professor’s tutorial sessions. I asked for help in class. I worked harder to try to understand the concepts. The outcome of that semester was much different, but more important than the improved grade, I learned to stand up for my own success.  

As a professor working with developmental level reading and writing students, I see students who are just like I was when I began college. Many of them have spent a good deal of their lives experiencing failure, and the deep but hidden wounds of those experiences are evident.  Some of these students had an advocate as children and young adults; a parent, guardian, or teacher who stood up for them and helped make decisions for them in their best interest. However, now as adults in college, that safety net has been cut, and students find themselves not knowing how to advocate for their success. 

At the beginning of each new semester, I spend time helping the students understand self-advocacy. We focus on two main points: 1) What do you want? and 2) What do you need to get what you want? As we start to learn about self-advocacy, students create graphic organizers to help them envision how they will advocate for themselves. For example, if a student responds that they want to improve their grade in their math class, they have identified what they want. Next is the harder part. I ask them to determine what they need to do to achieve that “want”, who may help them, or what services they may utilize to help. As these points are discussed and identified, the student creates their “plan” for self-advocacy. The flow chart clearly lays out how they will ask for help, a timeline for their plan, and what services they can use to succeed. 

This practice doesn’t stop there. I would be remiss if I lead you to believe that this is a one and done activity. Clearly this is something that must be done repetitively as issues arise so that the process becomes engrained in the student. As time progresses and the student begins to do this type of self-advocacy on their own, I carefully use language to praise them such as, “You are really working hard to advocate for yourself. I’m proud of you.” 

The ability to advocate for one’s own success is a skill students need to develop. Teaching students to evaluate their situations, identify areas of need, and empowering them to reach out for support are all necessary could be the difference between a student persevering to graduation or skipping out on the dreams that led them to college in the first place. 

Melanie Ward is a Professor of Developmental Reading at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas. You can contact Melanie at