© 2019 by Amy Firestone

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The Dissolution of the Fellowship



It Takes a Team


In J.R.R. Tolkien's epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings (TLOR), nine unite around a shared vision to destroy evil: Legolas for elves; Gimli for dwarves; Aragorn and Boromir for men; Frodo, Sam, Meriadoc, and Peregrin for hobbits; and Gandalf, both wizard and wise leader to the company. Together they travel up the treacherous mountain, Khazad-dum and make their way through the orc-infested Mines of Moria. Later they receive succor for their grief in Lothlorien and sustenance for their continued journey. Nine becomes eight with Gandalf’s fall into shadow, and eight becomes seven as Boromir dies defending two of his smallest companions. Fragmented by circumstance, the remaining seven split into two sets of two and one set of three. The final two books in the TLOR trilogy (The Two Towers and The Return of the King) reflect this separation with sub-books chronicling the redefined missions of the newly formed subgroups.


I, too, am part of a special team, an Individualized Education Program (IEP) fellowship composed of disparate members with unique roles: Debra Andrews and Jason Finch, LEAs (Local Education Agency representatives); general education teachers too numerous to individually name; Leanne Kaltenbaugh, SLP (speech language pathologist); Ali Geyer, OT (occupational therapist); Stephanie Barry, OT assistant; Jason Basinger, school psychologist; Amy Panter, school nurse; and Carolin Quist, my best friend and special education colleague extraordinaire. Finally, my staff. Though their names will never be formally listed on the legal documents co-created by the IEP team above, their direct impact on students’ lives is the most pronounced: currently Denis Sosa-Garay, Kara McGee, and Riechle Haines and earlier Avish Amenero, Robyn Keen, and Rosealine Scheuerman. Upstairs Quist works with Disa Estes, Francheska Sarrazin, and Shawna Spencer.


Past years have brought small changes to my Newman Elementary fellowship. My first principal, speech language pathologist, and special education consultant all left for well-deserved retirements, and I’ve experienced an ongoing rotation of competent assistant principals. Still, nothing so shattering as this. With the 2019-2020 creation of special education hubs in Salt Lake City District focused on better meeting the needs of students with disabilities, everything is getting restructured. At first I focused solely on the impact at the most micro-level. As time goes on, the macro implications of this imposed breakup are becoming more clear.


I’m still getting cut on the shards.


All the people filling the IEP team roles listed above (LEA, SLP, OT, school psychologist, etc.) will be torn away. In addition, I’ll soon lose the opportunity to daily greet the dynamic front office duo of Pam Haslam and Jenifer Briseno. I won’t get to regularly listen to librarian Koriann Grimshaw’s read-alouds or consume inordinate amounts of her homemade jam and baked goods. Vicky Potts will no longer be the one troubleshooting all my technical issues from malfunctioning SMARTboards to jammed printer pages. Isaac Chavez won’t be the custodian cheerfully cleaning up my class bathroom after student diaper changes go awry, and I won’t get to see his steady stream of sketches evolve. Mr. Paul’s (Heath) inspired art lessons will become cherished memories instead of every-other-Wednesday gentle 45-minute respites.

Enter Tessa, My Student Teacher

I requested a Westminster student teacher in fall 2018, because I finally felt confident enough in my practice to mentor. I first met Tessa Huecksteadt, my assigned mentee, on December 6; she joined my room for her 10-week placement on February 19. Tessa got to see my classroom operate as normal for three short weeks before I received the blindsiding school move news on March 12 from Shelley Halverson, Salt Lake City District’s special education director. (Beware the Ides of March--they can stab three days early!)


Tessa has been a firsthand witness to my emotional upheaval as I continuously try to reorder my thinking and regain my footing while simultaneously trying to perform my role as an effective mentor. She’s come alongside me much like the Riders of Rohan band with weary Gondor.


Two days before my fateful meeting with Shelley, I started (providentially) binge listening to The Lord of the Rings. The trilogy swiftly became a scaffold, a tether, a tool to help me reframe. Tessa became privy to ongoing updates of exactly where I was in the trilogy and how I felt it mirrored my life. I bewailed not only the adjustments to my IEP team but also the coming dissolution of my even tighter-knit fellowship as two of my three current paraprofessionals transition out of my classroom into new seasons--one to motherhood and the other to college. Tessa sent me this text:


“I love you. You are wonderful. And in the Fellowship of the Ring, they all break off but they break off to help other people they care about. Then, eventually they come back together! Your family [much-loved paras] will come back to you, in one way or another and while they are gone they will be working to help others, which is really our main quest anyways! (The Fellowship of Essential Elements!)”


The mentor mentored by her mentee.


What’s in a Name? (A Brief Aside to Explain the Essential Elements Moniker)

Salt Lake City District recently renamed all their self-contained functional academics and functional life skills units the Essential Elements. The name comes from the shared standards we teach. Instead of instructing students using the common core, both rooms teach the “essential elements,” which are aligned to the core but at a reduced depth and complexity. My home state, Utah, is one of 18 member states and the District of Columbia in the Dynamic Learning Maps ® (DLM®) Alternate Assessment System Consortium that use the essential elements to instruct (K-12) and assess (3-12) students with significant cognitive disabilities. The district’s January 2019 rebranding underscores that both settings address students’ academic needs in highly individualized ways. The name change simply better reflects what we do. (And provides a nice metaphor.)

Fission and Fusion

The periodic table is composed of 118 atomically distinct elements that are capable of combining in many ways to form composites sometimes stronger than the source material. The painful fission of my current Essential Elements fellowship at Newman Elementary ultimately concludes in a fusion of new resources funneled to Parkview. While fission produces huge amounts of energy, fusion is even more powerful. Two distinct sets of Essential Elements teachers will bond together at Parkview to create a larger team. Our fellowship will be further enhanced by the newly-created position of inclusion specialist, supporting our students as they access increased tier-1 (general education) instruction. Compressing resources into one larger Essential Elements hub will allow for an unprecedented surge of curriculum collaboration and behavior brainstorming.


Even with all these benefits which I (quite correctly) embrace, part of me is still trying to escape the blast radius. I want to burrow deep into denial and turn my hobbit hole into a bomb shelter.


That’s not healthy.


Either way my hobbit hole is irrevocably changed.


Decompose and Compose


One of my kindergartners is incredibly passionate about daily calendar math. When we jointly decompose dates greater than 10 into groups of 10s and ones, he’ll joyously chortle “What the f***!” (Note we have corrected the R-rated language without curbing his rapture.) My kinder’s facial affect always registers surprised delight, yet three out of three consecutive probes prove he fully grasps the concept. Why this reaction? Perhaps because in breaking something apart, it’s easier to see how the constituent parts contributed to the whole.


No Way to Come Out Unscathed


This move represents more than physical displacement. It’s an irreversible chemical change. Digits derive value from where they’re placed, and while periodically individual desires need to be tabled for the good of the whole, the elements or digits (inexplicably imbued with sentience) might rightly express trepidation at any alteration.


This brings me back to Tolkien and the members of his titular fellowship, which could have easily been 10 instead of nine. Fredegar Bolger is absent in the movies and is a footnote in the books compared to the well-developed Tom Bombadil, Treebeard, Eowyn, Faramir, and others. Fredegar, nicknamed “Fatty,” is close friends with Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin. However, unlike his friends, Fatty is fixed on remaining within the Shire’s bounds. The bonds of friendship are insufficient to compel him on an adventure he deems too perilous. Ironically, in staying behind he inadvertently exposes himself to greater risks without the rewards his braver friends gain. Fear makes him stay stuck in the known good instead of persevering to the unknown great. Upon finding their plump friend starving, Pippin declares, “You would have done better to come with us after all. Poor old Fredegar!”


Nothing stays static. Not even the Shire.


I will journey forward with the insoluble friendship of a temporarily smaller fellowship: Quist and Amy go to Parkview.