Alicia E. Ellis ’98. Majors: German and women & gender studies. Her students are “not alone with a novel trying to figure out what it means.”

Have you spent any time on Pinterest lately? Alicia E. Ellis ’98 admits she had thought of the social media platform as self-indulgent and consumer-oriented, but then a teaching colleague challenged her to look at it in a new way. Perhaps, her colleague said, it could be used as a teaching tool. 

“She said, ‘Break Pinterest.’ Use it in ways it wasn’t created for,” Ellis recalls. Which is why, tucked in among the wedding shower idea boards and smoothie recipe collections, you’ll find a board that explores racism, white privilege and violence in America. The juxtaposition is both brilliant and beside the point. Ellis is breaking Pinterest—but only because her students are getting so much out of it. 

It started at Hampshire College, where Ellis was teaching Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, a blistering book-length poem about racism in America that had just been released to great acclaim. Ellis knew it would elicit strong reactions in her students—some of them hard to articulate in a conventional five-to-seven-page paper. Her colleague’s Pinterest suggestion rang in her ears. 

Consider the “pin” in Pinterest. What might one traditionally pin to a board? Index cards—a throwback to an earlier academic age. “I remember doing history research papers with notecards, going to the card catalog and heading out to the stacks,” Ellis says. “Students don’t do that anymore.” 

But maybe they’re missing something, Ellis realized. “I think a lot of them want that textual materiality.” 

Here was an opportunity to create a digital bulletin board where thoughts and connections could be easily shared and cross-referenced. And her students took to the process like the digital natives they are. Articles about pop stars appropriating black culture, mugshots of civil rights workers, an essay on Black Lives Matter activists speaking at political rallies. All these pieces intersect and play off each other in the context of Rankine’s work, building the digital conversation. 

Now Ellis uses Pinterest as a regular part of her arsenal of high-tech teaching tools, which include Moodle, Wordle, Prezi and Google Maps. 

“These are tools my students are already using,” she says, noting that because these platforms are mostly cloud-based, they lend themselves to collaboration. “That’s really important—they’re not alone with a novel trying to figure out what it means.” 

The digital platform also allows for students to shine in ways they might not have otherwise. “Students have more of a personal stake,” she says. “In classroom settings, often some voices are heard and some aren’t.” On the Pinterest board, every voice can be heard—at an equal volume.

But Ellis’s students also like to kick it old-school. “Not everything works in a blended learning classroom,” she admits. “I once suggested students do collaborative work over instant message or Skype, but they just met over tea on a Sunday night!” When a teaching tool works, Ellis has learned, there’s no need to force it. 

That Hampshire class where the students put together that Pinterest page? It’s been over for a while now; Ellis has now moved on to a teaching position at Colby. But guess what? Students are still pinning to that old Pinterest page—engaging with the text, adding to the conversation. 

Naomi Shulman’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Yankee, Real Simple and many other publications.