White Teacher

October 2008

This is my first piece using Final Cut Express. The process of learning to use Final Cut was frustrating in many ways but also exhilarating in terms of all the production features it offers.

White Teacher

White Teacher: Reflection on the Process

As I sit down to write about my process, I am reminded of the way media activist, Ester Robinson describes her process of filmmaking as one that involves 3 films: first, the film you want to make; second, the film that emerges while shooting; and third, the film that reveals itself during the editing process. Much like Robinson describes, my process of storytelling from beginning to end was a simultaneous interweaving and unraveling of various stories.

Inspired by reading Walt’s memoir, Ghostbox, and knowing that production and editing of even a short 3-5 minute piece can take around 25 hours for a novice like me, I knew that I wanted this digital story to be one of focused reflection that would not only “grow” my storytelling skills but also help me process through some of my own social ghosts. Also, I was encouraged by the work of others (Lambert, 2007; Kress & van Leeuwen, 2001) who argue that different semiotic systems or modes of meaning offer unique potentials for expression and representation. To put it more honestly, I saw this assignment of digital storytelling as an apt occasion for some long overdue “digital therapy.”

Story #1: getting the story down on paper
So the story I started out with was a story about my experience teaching fifth grade in Brooklyn, New York – an experience that under-processed continued to haunt me and sometimes hinder my ability to produce new identities for myself as a teacher. Wanting to transform these memories into what Walt calls “productive haunting” I decided to revisit this experience and my motivations for going to NYC. This first story is housed mostly in the first draft writing of my voice over, where I focus on my desires to go to NYC yet unaware of how I, like many other teachers, get caught up in the teacher as savior motif. With this first write up, I wanted to lay bear my naivety about teaching and racial identities. So much like Lambert suggests, I started with the story—a story of personal guilt and shame. Yet, upon writing my voice over and sharing it with others, I realized that sticking to the story, especially when only presented in the written format constrained my ability to think outside of dominant narratives of the good teacher mitigating his or her privilege through helping the disadvantaged. In many ways, I think my final digital story could still be seen as representing a similar story.

Story #2: a dialogue between image and words
When it came to storyboarding, I had to revisit my photos and co-present my voice-over with the images, another story emerged, a story that still very much focused on my journey as a teacher, but one that also places my students at the forefront. I had many pictures of the students writing, reading, smiling, and laughing that I realized I wanted to acknowledge their experiences too. While I realize that my camera of course only captured the best of the best moments, these photos helped me to see how the first draft of my voice-over represented my students inaccurately. My students were not downtrodden, urban youth; they were, for the most part happy 11 year olds, who had loving families and enjoyed school. As a result, I revised my voice-over script by omitting key phrases that signaled too much the dominant discourse I was trying to avoid, such as “poor and disadvantaged students,” “second class citizens.”

In revising the verbal representations of my students, I presented them less as victims, while at the same time reduced the representation of myself as a villain. In making these revisions, I tried to avoid easy answers and instead present the story as more complex than nice white lady goes to Brooklyn. Looking back, I also wish I would have taken out the description of myself as a “white savior,” which in many ways reduces the emotional struggles I dealt with. But alas I didn’t—perhaps future experiences with digital therapy will allow for this.

I found Lambert’s discussion of the storyboarding planning process to be very helpful. While I knew what story I wanted to present in my head, I was at a loss in terms of how to bring the different elements together to present this story on the screen. At first I thought I would use many more images and some additional video footage, yet through storyboarding I was able to keep focused and realized what I did and didn’t need. Lambert’s storyboarding template worked well as a scaffolding tool for me to start thinking about how the different modes of voice over, images, effects, transitions, and soundtrack will interact.

After laying out the images I wanted to use in the order that I thought I wanted to present them, I then sectioned off my voice-over script into chunks that best matched the images. This may sound like a clean process, but it wasn’t. I was consistently going back and forth between the images and the voice-over text trying to get a cohesion between the visual and verbal stories. Overall, I’d have to say that the voice-over, more than the images, drove the story, which in the end may have limited my storytelling ability.

Story #3: technology once again shifts the focus
Finally, it was time to layer all the elements together. I was especially drawn to Lamberts dissection of the planning/storyboarding process into two dimensions of planning: time and interaction (p. 61). While I can’t say I fully comprehend the capacity of each of these dimensions, the editing process definitely helped me to be better understand how the these dimensions can be manipulated. Through use of the motion feature, which opens up the visual potential of a single, still image in so many different ways, I was able to focus more on my students as individual people rather than a big group.

It is here, working with the motion and center framing features, that I experienced my most intense moments of digital therapy. In deciding who’s face to zoom in on and when, I engaged more intensely with visual materials of the story and began to realize that my class was made up of so many different people, so many different stories. Before making this story, the prominent memories of my time in Brooklyn were dominated by a very limited number of people. Now after physically/visually engaging with these photos with such intensity, my memories now are much more inclusive of the others present during that year and my interactions with them.

So in this sense, the third story emerged through use of certain editing features. These focusing features helped me to see again and remember the other lives in my classroom. In many ways this was a liberating experience for me. I was able to revise the memory of my time in Brooklyn away from that of an overemphasis on a single student to a whole set of students. By focusing only on a certain student or two, I consistently saw myself as a failure. While I may have had less of a connection with some students than other students, it is inaccurate to remember the whole year as a failure, especially when that feeling of failure has limited my ability to see the successes my students and I did achieve and thus hindering my ability redesign new identities for myself as a teacher now and in the future. The images alone were not enough to help me re-see my past, rather it was the specific editing tools that made it possible for me revise how I see and re-remember my experience as a teacher at P.S. 1. Through this revision, I’m able to now go forward in my thinking not only about myself as a teacher but my thinking about each of my individual students and their unique stories and experience, which I believe offers more rich context for future learning and storytelling.

Digital storytelling: visiting the past to revise the future
Toni Morrison and bell hooks have been essential in helping me to piece together how this process of revision via digital storytelling was possible for me. Novelist and social critic, Toni Morrison describes history not as fixed entity but rather a dynamic and fertile process we engage in to change our futures. As Morrison describes,

I know I can’t change the future but I can change the past. It is the past not the future, which is infinite. Our past was appropriated. I am one of the people who has to reappropriate it” (quoted in Taylor-Guthrie, 1994, pp. xiii-xiv)

hooks further elaborates on the potential of history as a processes of identity revision yet does so by focusing specifically on the potential of photos as sites of remembrance.

The word remember (re-member) evokes the coming together of severed parts, fragments becoming a whole. Photography has been, and is, central to that aspects of decolonization that calls us back to the past and offers a way to reclaim and renew life-affirming bonds. Using these images, we connect ourselves to a recuperative, redemptive memory that enable us to construct radical identities, images of ourselves that transcend the limits of the colonizing eye.”

In this sense, Morrison and hooks both position storytellers whether using words or photos as those who must re-perform history in ways that transcend oppressive narratives that limit how we see ourselves and others. When considering the diverse modes of representation brought together in the process of digital storytelling I begin to see and experience first-hand the counter-narrative potentials of this medium.


hooks, b. (2006) “In our Glory: Photography and black life” In L. Wells (Ed.) The
Photography Reader. Routledge.
Kress, G. & Van Leeuwen, T. (2001). Multimodal Discourse. New York: Oxford.
Lambert, J. (2007). Digital Storytelling: Capturing Lives, Creating Community.
Taylor-Guthrie, D. (1994). Conversations with Toni Morrison. Jackson: University Press
of Mississippi.


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