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Creature Canjos | Arts & Activities
May 2019

Creature Canjos

Creature Canjos

An opportunity to create a memorable art/music experience presented itself at our school. A speaker on Project Based Learning (PBL) inspired us to develop a unit on “canjo” making and embellishment. What is a canjo? It is a relative of banjos but is made with … you guessed it: cans!

There is a long history of making “folk art” musical instruments from cast-off materials. Denise (music teacher) and I (art teacher) created the unit with the help of Glenn Watts from C.B. Gitty Co. in Rochester, N.H. (www.cbgitty.com). It was a fabulous success and has become a tradition at our school for our third-graders.

Regarding Project Based Learning (PBL),  according to the Buck Institute for Education (BIE), PBL is a student-centered pedagogy that involves a dynamic classroom approach in which it’s believed that students acquire a deeper knowledge through active exploration of real-world challenges and problems. … It is a style of active learning and inquiry-based learning. (Source: www.pblworks.org.)

WE STARTED WITH A DRIVING QUESTION: How can we as successful engineers create canjos that are visually, as well as aurally, pleasing? This question was posed to our students after learning the Engineering Design Process through STEAM units. Our age-appropriate explanation of this design process is:

1. Identify the problem.

2. Explore/Research/Brainstorm.

3. Design your best-bet solution.

4. Create model/prototype.

5. Try it out.

6. Make it better!


1. Challenging Problem or Question (Driving Question). Yes, we asked the question! We reviewed resources and encouraged collaboration. We demonstrated building the canjos and making the art. We scaffolded the content.

2. Sustained Inquiry. Inquire, seek and investigate are the gold standards of PBL. We provided the roots and wings through a “go forth and problem-solve” vibe, combined with easy access to adult input when needed.

3. Authenticity. Using the tools that a folk artist would use, C.B. Gitty Co. supplied a roadmap of sorts for students to experience using the materials to create a quality canjo. Our goal was to create a format for students to create a beautiful and tuneful instrument. Our students were very excited to create something that they would own. In a low socioeconomic district, it is vital to provide examples of art/music that can be made with very little outlay of money.

4. Student Voice and Choice. We witnessed this through the collaborative problem-solving conversations that occurred in student groups while they constructed their instruments. The art featured animals from art history, but students had voice and choice in color selection and in personalization beyond the basic animal stencils they used.

5. Reflection. We asked students to respond via essay, to questions about canjos, animals in art history, process, and C.B. Gitty. This helped us move forward with revisions.

6. Critique and Revision. Our revisions involved the development of personal and group rubrics to be used after instruction on constructive criticism techniques.

7. Public Product. After much practice playing their canjos, students have the opportunity to play at monthly assemblies, for small group settings and are filmed for local access TV. Some students learn songs from the collection while others composed new songs.

8. Key Knowledge, Understanding, Success Skills. The components of the National Core Art Standards are comprehensively addressed via both art and music in our canjo unit.

THE ART FOR OUR CANJOS. Who doesn’t love animals in art? In the first year of this project, we found, that animal themes were overwhelmingly selected. As a result, our second year featured only animals from art.

Basic animal plastic stencils (cut by me) were the jumping-off point for layers of color (limited color scheme and light/dark contrast were encouraged). Fine-art visuals were also available for student reference. Among them were: Gyotaku fish print, Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinoceros (Nov 2013  Art Print) and Young Hare (Oct. 2016 Art Print), cave-art bull, Chinese horse, Egyptian art image of a rhinoceros and ducks, Aboriginal kangaroos and emus, Native American elk, wolf, bear and crane

PAINTING THE IMAGE. Each student selected a pastel color of acrylic paint to cover the neck of the canjo and the background of the art to go on the canjo. The art was painted on peel-and-stick paper so the design could be wrapped around the can. Once the background was dry, students did a quick stencil sketch of their animal, then they added detail, texture, background and borders (optional). Writing their name on the back of the peel side was essential so no designs were misplaced!

Once the art was embellished and made unique, students were asked to sign their name on their art painting. Once the art was stuck to the can, the signature really finished the statement that signified that the canjo was their creation!

INVOLVEMENT AND INVESTMENT. This unit has been a dream come true, the “home run” unit in which students are fully engaged. Each child dove deeply into the content, both artistically and musically. They took great pride in their accomplishments—the canjo itself, as well as the many skills each of them developed along the way.


Abrielle using stencil


Ben painting.


Ava, Zoie-Ann and Mason working together to attach can to the neck of canjo.


Owen painted a bear for his canjo art.


Kylee’s canjo art features turtles.


Sam attaching can to canjo neck.


Snake and quadruped by Shaylee.


Student-made canjos.


Group of C.B. Gitty canjos.


Elementary students will …
identify materials to use to create canjos and canjo art.
 assemble canjos using the information and materials provided.
design and personalize art for their canjos.
revise canjo construction as needed.
assess their own success in creating canjo, canjo art and use of canjo to create music.
assess their own success in creating a visually and aurally pleasing experience.

Creating: Conceiving and developing new artistic ideas and work.
Presenting: Interpreting and sharing artistic work.
Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.

Examples of animals in art
Basic plastic stencils of animals
Peal and stick paper for canjo design
Small and medium paintbrushes
Acrylic paint

Canjo Kits (each includes can, neck, basic hardware, filament),
Directions Packet (step-by-step, with great visuals) and Beginner
Music Packet from C.B. Gitty (www.cbgitty.com)
Screwdrivers (small and regular size)
Pencils, rulers

aa-finalbitton60ONLINE EXTRAS
click here for resources related to this article

Kimberly J.B. Smith teaches K–3 art and Denise Bondi teaches music at Valley View Community School in Farmington, N.H.


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