The fifth graders at Navajo Elementary School are unlike other fifth-grade classes in Scottsdale.
Students were not only forced to switch campuses after an August 2018 fire, but they were also stripped of the opportunity to return to the newly restored Granite Reef campus this spring – even if just for the last few months of fifth grade.
But before the class’s untraditional promotion May 21, two Navajo parents and the fifth-grade teachers weren’t about to let one popular activity fall by the wayside: the cigar box guitar project.
“This cigar box guitar is one of our signature STEAM projects for the school that students love,” said Principal Matthew Patzlaff.
For the past four years, the collaborative project teaches students how to design and build a cigar box guitar as well as the history of the instrument and how to play it.
Navajo teachers have spent the past few years improving and perfecting it.
“It’s just grown. Every year it’s gotten better,” said music teacher Jeanette Young.
When the school closed, Young was unsure if her students would have the opportunity to complete the project – until she received an email from parents Steve Prince and Greg Thorne, members of Navajo’s dads club called Watch D.O.G.S., “Dads of Great Students.”
“Steve and Greg emailed and said, ‘Hey, what can we do to get this project to actually happen this year?’” Young said.
“I did not want these kids to not experience what the last three classes did,” said Thorne, whose daughter DeLynda is a fifth-grader at Navajo.
Thorne, Prince and several other dads spent 16 hours over two days cutting wood, gathering materials and creating about 80 cigar box kits for the students.
The kits include a guitar neck, three strings, five screws, a bridge and nut, sandpaper, a guitar pick and a PVC pipe to use while paying the guitar.
“I’ve got to give props to Steve Prince because he opened his house up to us to use his woodworking equipment and we spent basically the first Saturday and Sunday of spring break this year getting the necks ready, drilling holes, preparing everything,” Thorne said.
The students then dropped by Thorne’s southern Scottsdale home earlier this month to pick up their kits.
Young said more than half of the 66 students picked up their guitar.
“I thought it was super cool that we have a group of dads that was still willing to make it happen. I wasn’t surprised because that’s just the kind of community we are,” said parent Jill Mullen, whose daughter Chloe is also in the fifth grade.
“Chloe was thrilled she wouldn’t have to miss out. She has two older sisters that have gotten them,” Mullen added.
As part of the STEAM project, the students work with the technology teacher to learn how to 3-D design the guitar’s bridge and the nuts via Tinkercad, a free, easy-to-use online 3D CAD design tool.
Young teaches the history behind the cigar box guitar and how to play it.
“This project integrates all of the disciplines in a STEAM project: the sciences, technology, engineering, arts, and math into one project,” Patzlaff said.
“It was important to still do it with this group of fifth graders because a lot of the work had already been done before the school closures started,” he added.
Typically, the students spend two days a week for two weeks working on the interactive project, during which Young said they bring in Thorne and a handful of other Watch D.O.G.S. to help the students.
“They came in on the days that we were building with the kids,” she said. “Some of the kids didn’t even know how to screw a screw, and the kids learned how to tighten the strings.”
But with physical distancing orders in effect, Young and Thorne instead recorded and uploaded a total of four videos teaching the students how to assemble the guitar, how to play it and more.
“I did a video of them doing the blues because that’s one of the things we did is we studied the blues before this all happened,” Young said. “That’s the culminating thing is they actually play the guitar and play the blues.”
It takes the students about 20 minutes to put the guitars together.
What DeLynda enjoys about the project, Thorne said, is using the tools to put the guitar together.
“I think that’s what a lot of these kids enjoy, like, ‘Hey, I was able to use a screwdriver. I was actually putting all these things and now I have a real working guitar,’” Thorne said.
“I’ve heard from a couple parents already who said that the kids had a great time,” he said.
Thorne may be phasing out of the Watch D.O.G.S. as the group’s “Top D.O.G.” due to the fact that his daughter is on her way to Mohave Middle School in the fall, but he still plans to help with the project next year.
“It’s a great project, and I hope everything continues to go forward, for years to come,” Thorne said.
“I’ll pull all of those 20-some hours putting it all together, as long as I get the supplies to the kids,” he added. “It’s up to them to put it together. If they don’t put it together, that’s their choice, but at least I did everything in my hand and my power to make sure they have the opportunity to do it.”