Like elementary-school students everywhere, Mason Behrends is spending the school year sharpening his math and language skills. But as a fourth-grader at Willow Lane Elementary in White Bear Lake, Mason has also been studying how best to help others.
"I learned that you don't need money to serve others, you just need happiness and time," he said.
Mason took part in a project called Minnow Tank. It's named after the ABC-TV reality show "Shark Tank," in which entrepreneurs present business proposals to a panel of investors — or "sharks" — hoping to persuade them to put money into their companies.
The difference with Minnow Tank, besides the contestants' youth, is that students don't try to win funds for personal benefit. They pitch on behalf of charities they have chosen — organizations that focus on problems the kids feel passionate about.
"There's so many lessons that go along with this," said Leigh Anderson, outreach coordinator at Willow Lane, who created and supervised the project.
Working in teams, students learn how to support each other and cooperate. With the help of adult volunteer coaches, they present talks about their charities to a panel of adult volunteer judges, who rate the teams' work and allocate donations accordingly.
Fourth-graders wrapped up their version of the project in early January. Minnow Tank is currently being introduced to third-graders; fifth-graders will take a turn later this year.
Volunteer projects have long been part of education, said Willow Lane Principal Matt Menier. But traditionally they've involved standard community-service work, such as picking up trash or packing boxes of food for distribution. Minnow Tank's structure broadens learning opportunities, teaching kids about the work of specific charities while they acquire skills such as cooperation, mutual support, public speaking — even dealing with failure.
"To learn more about a cause is service learning ... it helps kids socially and emotionally," Menier said. "We're helping build empathy, helping build compassion, talking about service and gratitude."
Willow Lane has a diverse student body, with more than 60% students of color, and more than 60% of kids on free or reduced lunch. In some cases, the students work on problems they might have experienced in their own lives.
The project starts small, with exercises designed to practice thanking and praising others. For example, a school employee visits a classroom and students take turns telling the person why they appreciate them.
"You are caring and awesome because you give us good lunches every day, and if you didn't, we would just starve," a third-grade boy, his class still in the project's beginning stages, told a visiting school lunch server.
The students also learn about needs throughout the world. The same third-grade class watched a video about a girl in Chad who walks miles every day — carrying her toddler brother on her back — to collect clean water for her family.
Patty Hall, founder of H20 for Life for schools and a retired teacher, talked to the class about the worldwide water shortage. She offered such sobering statistics as the number of children who die from water-related illnesses, while also empowering the students to contribute to solutions.
"More than a million kids in the United States have raised funds for projects for more than 500,000 kids around the world who now have access to water and toilets," Hall told the class. "I truly believe youth can be leaders of change, and every single one of you can be an agent of change."
In the fourth-graders' project, the students were introduced to charities focusing on areas such as the environment, diseases and animals. They decided which causes they felt most passionate about and formed 12 teams according to interests. In the teams, they worked together with the help of coaches — volunteers from the White Bear Lake Rotary Club — to assemble presentations arguing for the worthiness of their chosen charity.
"They were curious, they were eager to learn, they were totally engaged in what they were doing," said coach Jackie Reis. She was impressed by how the youngsters worked as a team. "They were very respectful — not just of me but of each other."
Coach John Channon said the coaches probably got as much out of it as the kids did.
"I really looked forward to going" to the coaching sessions, Channon said. "Just for the ability to engage with these kids and watch them grow and learn a little bit and feel like maybe this was really good for them — and I helped."
The Rotary Club raised $2,200 to award to the charities selected, along with additional money to make T-shirts for students, teachers and coaches with a Minnow Tank logo designed by one of the students. It features the outline of a minnow inside a heart.
The judges, who included more members of the Rotary Club as well as school district administrators, rated each presentation according to preparedness, enthusiasm, teamwork and creativity.
"There were a lot of adults in the room, but they did a great job," said Chris Streiff, a Rotary judge and former Willow Lane principal who retired last year. "When you see kids in a leadership role, it's fun to see them flourish."
Fourth-grader Aidan McDermid said the experience helped him get over his initial stage fright.
"When I started, I was shivering and scared," he said. "I picked up the pace after that."
The judges picked the top three teams and charities. In first place, receiving $1,000, was the Eden Prairie-based Minnesota Chapter of HopeKids, which provides events and support for families in which a child has cancer or another life-threatening medical condition. They awarded $750 to the Masonic Cancer Center and $450 to Second Chance Animal Rescue.
Inevitably, nine other teams did not win donations to their charities. But that's OK, Anderson said — that's part of learning. Failures, after all, are inevitable even on a path to success.
"Part of what we're going to learn is, if it doesn't go our way, is it OK to be sad and frustrated?" Anderson said. "How can we channel that emotion?"
Fourth-grader Farrah Lo provided an answer. "It's OK that you didn't win. It's OK to feel sad."
Menier said Minnow Tank was another opportunity for the students to show they'll be effective as tomorrow's leaders.
"People ask me, aren't you worried about the future?" Menier said. "I can safely say I'm more optimistic about the future because of how [the students] interact with each other. The kids have a tremendous amount of compassion and empathy — they want to do the right thing."