This spring, six students from William Monroe Middle School won distinction at the state level for their Virginia History Day projects. Caroline Bruton, Kayla Shaller and Mukund Marri are now eligible to compete at the NHD national level, which will take place virtually in June.
Organized by the Virginia Museum of History & Culture (VMHC), the state VHD contest took place virtually between April 16 and May 4. Ten WMMS students and three from William Monroe High School won awards at the district competition, enabling them to compete on the state level.
“This year, 223 students overcame virtual learning, closed libraries and archives and technological obstacles to create projects on a wide variety of topics including carrier pigeons, Navajo code talkers, the Cold War and everything in between,” according to a VMHC press release last week.
On May 4, it was announced that Mukund Marri, a sixth-grader from Ruckersville, placed first in the junior individual documentary category for “Navajo Code—The Unbreakable Code.” According to the press release, Marri’s project “investigates the story of Navajo code talkers during World War II. (Marri) discussed how the Marine Corps recruited these brave American Indian soldiers to serve as radio operators because the Navajo language was so different that enemy code breakers could not decipher the messages. Kept secret for many years, former Navajo code talkers have only recently been recognized for their important contribution to the American war effort.”
Marri says the idea for his project came to him while watching television, and that the extra time at home because of the pandemic helped him to do much of his research online.
“I was watching a History Channel documentary on TV which talked about how an indigenous community played an important role in helping the US win World War II,” he said. “I went on to research more on how they helped the US by developing secret code for military communication that was unbreakable. The most fun thing was probably making the documentary, because you can make it however you like as long as it is within 10 minutes.”
Caroline Bruton and Kayla Shaller took first place in the junior group documentary category for “Communicating Through Cell Walls: The Secret Correspondence of American POWs in Vietnam” and also won the Naval Order of the United States Award in Naval History.
The documentary explores how American Prisoners of War (POWs) were able to develop secret codes to communicate with each other during the Vietnam War.
“Communication defines the very bonds that hold our society together,” Bruton and Shaller wrote in the process paper submitted with their video. “In a time of crisis, the strength of these bonds are tested. The POWs tested and exceeded the limits of language put upon them by the North Vietnamese. … It brought them together when they were at their breaking points, and helped them carve their way out of North Vietnam together.”
The Naval Order of the United States (NOUS) encourages research and writing on naval and maritime subjects, including the Marine Corps and United States Coast Guard, and promotes the preservation of historic artifacts and memories of naval/maritime history. NOUS presents annual awards of $200 at the senior division and $100 at the junior division for the entry that best explores naval history and related maritime subjects.
Bruton, who won third place in the national contest last year for her project on the discovery of penicillin during World War II, said the experience helped prepare her to represent her school on the national level once more in the junior division of NHD.
”It was very exciting to hear back from a former POW who we asked to interview about his experience using the Tap Code,” Bruton said. “In the interview, he shared personal stories that were very interesting and helpful for us in understanding our topic. It was very difficult to collaborate without being in the school building because in a normal year there is time set aside to work on our projects with the teachers after school … we had to set aside times to work together virtually on our project (and) we used Google Drive, Zoom, FaceTime, Noodle Tools and WeVideo to collaborate.”
Samantha Braden and Kingston Roach took second place for the National Maritime Historical Society (NMHS) Prize with “Submarine Communications: War Under the Waves.” This special award is given to projects that focus on the maritime heritage of the US and the duo will receive a $50 prize as well as a one-year membership to NMHS and a subscription to Sea History for each of them and for their mentoring teacher.
Braden says the most difficult parts of the project were writing the script and finding information, since much is still classified.
“Doing research was hard this year especially since Kingston and I have completely different schedules,” she said. “He’s all virtual and I have a hybrid learning plan, so we had to work around that and find all the stuff we need over Google Meet and make the project mostly by ourselves.”
“The most fun part about NHD this year was probably competing,” Roach said. “We worked really hard this year and it was very rewarding when we watched the ceremony.”
“I felt awesome when we were watching with all my peers and teachers and they announced our names,” Braden agreed. “I felt so happy and relieved that all our hard work paid off … our teachers helped us get to where we are and especially this year, we couldn’t have done it without them. My parents have also been my support system this whole year.”
Hannah Carroll took third place in junior individual exhibit for “Men Their Rights, and Nothing More; Women Their Right, and Nothing Less,” which is a quote by Susan B. Anthony. The exhibit explored the joining together of previously rival women’s suffrage associations to strengthen their message to the public about women’s right to vote.
“The past election helped me realize women didn’t always have the right to vote,” Carroll wrote in her paper about the inspiration for the project. “COVID helped me connect the fight that the women had with the fight against COVID. And lastly my grandma, who was a very independent woman, but this February she passed away from COVID and that inspired me to honor her.”
Other projects presented at the state competition this year included: Mushtaq Faiz’s website called “The Forbidden Language: The Incredible and Indecipherable Hidden Weapon,” which focused on Navajo Code Talkers; Caden Singer’s exploration of telegraph’s role in the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad; Miryam Reid’s exploration of Jonathan Larson’s musicals and how theatre can be used to communicate; and Ashley Cortez’s performance, “May Days: Charlottesville Speaks Out About Vietnam War.”
All the students wished to thank history teacher Stephanie Hammer, who has been assisting with research and project preparation for History Day for many years, the school librarians for being available to assist in finding resource materials either in-person or virtually, and their parents for their support.
“I had to do a lot of things for NHD that I had no idea how to do on my own,” Singer said. “It took a lot of dedication and work. If one had a choice of playing all day or doing hard research, they would probably choose playing—but I chose research.”
“I’ve been doing NHD for five years now and though I’ve qualified for the state competition in the past, this was the first time I had placed first,” Reid said of her district win. “I’d like to thank Ms. Hammer for being a really good mentor who I could come to for advice as well as my mother for being very supportive with my project and by helping me by reading my paper many different times to give feedback.”
Hammer said the start of the year brought uncertainty as to whether the NHD contest would be able to move forward, but that the students’ initiative really drove the participation this year.
“The teachers were the support system while the students were in the driver’s seat,” she said. “In the midst of the pandemic and working within their pandemic schedules, they overcame obstacles and created history day projects that far exceeded expectations … (NHD) teaches critical thinking and writing (and) it teaches students collaboration, managing their time and perseverance—it is truly the ultimate all-in-one academic package. … We cannot say enough about how proud we are of our NHD 2021 students; their ambition is admirable, their recognition is well-deserved (and) they have bright futures ahead of them.”
The projects are all available to view in a virtual showcase at https://sites.google.com/view/vhdvirtualshowcase2021.
Virginia History Day State Winners (May 2021)
- Caroline Bruton, Kayla Shaller, First, Junior Group Documentary, Naval Order of the United States Award in Naval History: “Communicating Through Cell Walls: The Secret Correspondence of American POWs in Vietnam”
- Mukund Marri, First, Junior Individual Documentary: “Navajo Code: The Unbreakable Code”
- Hannah Carroll, Third, Junior Individual Exhibit: “Men their rights, and nothing more; women their right, and nothing less”
- Samantha Braden, Kingston Roach, National Maritime Historical Society Award, Junior Group Documentary: “History of Submarine Communications”
Virginia History Day District Four Winners (March 2021)
William Monroe High:
- Ashley Cortez, Second, Senior Individual Performance; Second, Charles Fund Local History Award: “May Days: Charlottesville Speaks Out About Vietnam War”
- Mushtaq Faiz, First Place, Senior Individual Website: “The Forbidden Language” The Incredible and Indecipherable Hidden Weapon”
- Miryam Reid, First, Senior Paper: “The Need To Express To Communicate: The Works of Jonathan Larson”
William Monroe Middle:
- Hannah Carroll, First, Junior Individual Exhibit: “Men their rights, and nothing more; women their right, and nothing less”
- Junseo Kim, Third, Junior Individual Exhibit: “Communication During the 1918 Flu Pandemic”
- Caroline Bruton, Kayla Shaller, First, Junior Group Documentary: “Communication Through Cell Walls: The Secret Correspondence of American POWs in Vietnam”
- Samantha Barden, Kingston Roach, Second, Junior Group Documentary: “History of Submarine Communications”
- Leah Toliver, Caden Souder (out of district student), Fourth, Junior Group Documentary: “SHOUT for Equality”
- Mukund Marri, Third, Junior Individual Documentary: “Navajo Code—The Unbreakable Code”
- Hank Finney, Fourth, Junior Individual Documentary: “The Zimmerman Telegram”
- Caden Singer, Second, Junior Paper: “Samuel F.B. Morse: Revolutionizing Communication”