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the cookie orchard

Megan Betz

Image courtesy of  Francesco Tonelli for The New York Times.

Image courtesy of Francesco Tonelli for The New York Times.

When I got my first teaching job--teaching English phonetics, law, & conversation to French students--I was convinced I wasn't a teacher. I'm not known for being a patient person. I'm not known for being incredibly easy-going. Then, I got in front of the classroom. And I fell head over heels for my students & their willingness to speak to each other & participate in mock trials, movie scenes, interviews--anything I threw at them. I was hooked.

Becoming a resource & a safe space for students, and creating a sense of community in the classroom, is the best job I can imagine. My students ask amazing questions that spur my research. They make me dig deeper into my own preconceptions. They make me admit what I don't know, make me accountable for finding answers. They give so much in class (a second eight-weeks course that puts us in class for five hours a week), so when I was approaching one of my favorite topics in class (the community orchard as a common pool resource management case study), I wanted to really drive it home.

Last night, I baked cookies.

Today, I put six cookies on the table.

The twelve students worked through Ostrom's eight principles for successful common pool resource (CPR) management & created the rules for their chocolate chip cookie orchard, a renewable resource with significant yields. They created a democratic process that would result in punishments for over-consumers and leave enough cookie left over for a second harvest. The result? Five cookies shared; one used for future plantings. And strict sanctions on their community membership. Weren't in class today? Well, no share in next week's harvest. Took more than your share? You're putting in extensive work to earn back your right to participate. Took more than your share again? You're suspended. Strike three, you're out. For good.

Seeing the students take on the exercise & begin to parse through what each of the principles mean was great. Is it enough to say "it's ours"? Who are we? Who is not us? How strict is too strict? What resources do we share; what is just mine? Can we sell our cookies, or should we only take what we need?

The exercise was simple--just twelve bags of cookies with two cookies each (hidden, so they had no idea how many cookies I had beyond the six I put on the table). Simple parameters: (1) We need to respond to each of these eight principles by creating a rule. (2) We all need agree to the rule. (3) We need to have an entire cookie left over. (4) Discuss.

I was worried that there wouldn't be enough buy-in--that they would need more incentive to not just say, "I don't want any" or "Let's each just break off a small piece and forget future harvests." I thought the prospect of a "later harvest" in next week's class would be incentive, since good CPR management comes from real buy-in and ownership, but I ultimately don't even know that I needed to promise more cookies. They dove in, insisting on votes with simple majorities and pulling themselves back from, as they described it, "becoming too much like Stalin" when one student started dominating discussion.

The moments of real engagement with concepts and students interacting with each other as they leave the classroom is what makes teaching most remarkable for me. They commented that it was great to see the concepts come to life, which pleased me, but I was more impressed by the responsiveness--their desire to care for each other, buy into a classroom culture, & respectfully listen to each other.

Now, if they'd just come to my office hours...