Two William Monroe Middle School students are first in the country for their National History Day (NHD) project. Eighth-graders Caroline Bruton and Kayla Shaller took first place in the junior group documentary category with “Communicating Through Cell Walls: The Secret Correspondence of America POWs in Vietnam.”
Additionally, sixth-grader Mukund Marri came in eighth nationwide for junior individual documentary with his project “Navajo Code—The Unbreakable Code.” The three Monroe middle students were among 49 Virginians competing at the 2021 National History Day contest, which took place virtually in May and June, and competing against more than 3,000 students from across the country.
“Similar to a science fair but for history, the National History Day Contest was founded in 1974 to inspire students to conduct original historical research,” according to a press release from the Virginia Museum of History & Culture. “Since its creation, the contest has grown into an international competition with more than half a million participants and thousands of dollars in scholarship awards and prizes annually.”
American documentary director and longtime supporter of NHD Ken Burns spoke to the award winners during the virtual awards ceremony June 19.
“History is what defines us and unites us as a country, and it is through understanding our past that we can make sense of and influence our present and future,” Burns said. “The power of history to bring people together, to foster unity and connection, is one of the many reasons that I became a filmmaker. … I am continually impressed by the winners of these awards and excited for the future of the historical documentary field, knowing that those who win this award will be the vanguard of a new generation of filmmakers.”
National History Day accepts entries in 18 categories, including documentary films, exhibits, papers, performances and websites. The junior division is for middle school students while high school students compete for scholarship money at the senior level. The theme for 2021 was “Communication in History: The Key to Understanding.”
This is the third year of NHD competition for Bruton and Shaller.
“In the past, the topics of their award-winning projects from previous district and state competitions include the triumph and tragedy of Bessie Coleman and child labor when they were in sixth grade and then last year they were breaking barriers with Penicillin and night witches,” recalled seventh-grade Instructional Coach Allison Hughes. In 2020, Bruton took third place for her individual documentary, “Penicillin: Breaking Bacterial Barriers.”
“This year we encouraged them to work together as a group,” Hughes continued. “Together, they tackled one of the most complex topics that we have ever had any student research. We can’t wait to see what they accomplish in high school.”
“Communicating Through Cell Walls” tells the stories of American Prisoners of War and the multitude of ways they found to communicate secretly while held captive 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 is 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.”
At the state competition in May, the pair was awarded the Naval Order of the United States Award. The NOUS encourages research and writing on naval and maritime subjects and promotes the preservation of historic artifacts. Each year they award $200 to one senior division project and $100 to a junior division project that best explores naval history.
During the course of their research, Bruton and Shaller interviewed two POWs who shared personal stories about the use of Tap Code during the Vietnam War.
“Our interview with Commander Porter Halyburton (USN, Retired), a POW from 1965 to 1973, was crucial to our research and knowledge about the Tap Code and other communication,” the pair wrote in their paper. “We also interviewed Lt. Col. Dane Hanson (USMC, Retired), a SERE school graduate. This interview assisted us in our research about the school, whose curriculum has changed since the Vietnam War.”
According to Shaller, the pair read a book about Halyburton and reached out through his university in an attempt to set up a meeting with him. When he did not respond, Bruton located Halyburton’s address and the pair sent him a personal letter, to which he responded enthusiastically.
”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.”
Shaller said she enjoyed doing the research from the comfort of her home while learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We didn’t have the help of teachers and that was a downside, but I was at home and I could just sit there in my pajama pants and do research,” she said.
“It was a little bit harder to get access to books, but we found a way,” Bruton agreed. “We bought some, so now I get to have them forever instead of just checking them out from the library.”
“They worked together at a distance and I think they have a lot to be proud of,” said Bruton’s dad during a celebration at the school last week. “Porter Halyburton was really generous with his time; I eavesdropped on the interview. … It was cool that he was so willing to share his experience.”
This is the first year that a student from WMMS has placed first in the nationwide contest. According to one of the judges, “this documentary plays as richly and smoothly as many professional documentaries.”
For Marri, this was his first year competing in the junior division of NHD.
“When the pandemic changed our schedule, we struggled as teachers whether to include sixth-graders,” Stephanie Hammer said. “We knew it was overwhelming, but we had a few students that expressed an interest in having more of a challenge than what hybrid or virtual (learning) offered. Mukund was one of them. … As a finalist at the national level with his individual documentary, Mukund was in the top 10 of over 100 of the best of the best individual documentaries from each state.”
Marri’s documentary explored how the Marine Corps recruited Navajo Code Talkers during World War II to serve as radio operators.
“I was watching a History Channel documentary on TV which talked about how an indigenous community played an important role in helping the U.S. win World War II,” Marri said. “I went on to research more on how they helped the U.S. by developing secret code for military communication that was unbreakable.”
The Navajo Code Talkers were recruited in 1941-42 by the U.S. Marine Corps for this mission because their language was so different from English that enemy soldiers could not decipher the messages that were being sent via radio.
“The National Archives turned out to be a great place for my research,” Marri wrote in his project paper. “The primary source materials there described how Navajos were recruited, trained and later deployed on various missions in the Pacific. I learned that Navajo is a tonal-based language with four tone levels and the meaning of a word depends upon the tone level used. I was surprised to know that even another Navajo cannot decipher the code without training.”
Marri’s documentary also describes how the Code Talkers were required to keep their work a secret for many decades after the end of the war.
“After WWII, the Navajo Code Talkers were told to keep their work a secret. Since the codes remained unbroken, the U.S. military wanted to keep the program classified in case the Code Talkers were needed again in future wars,” Marri wrote. “It took until 1968 for the public to know them. The recognition of Code Talkers was slow. In 2001 President George W. Bush gave the Congressional Gold Medal to five of the original 29 code talkers.”
Marri placed eighth in the nation for his individual documentary, and said he definitely plans to enter the contest again next year.
“The Navajo Code Talkers is probably one of the most popular topics at National History Day,” wrote one judge. “This project, however, is one of the best on the topic I have had the privilege of judging.”
“I’m so proud of these kids and their passion to learn,” said Marri’s mom during the celebration. “When I was small, I was always into science and the STEM-related topics. I did not pay that much attention to history. But with the kids, I learned. In the last three years, I learned a lot which I never knew previously. All that credit goes to the teachers here.” Marri’s older brother has previously competed in the senior division of NHD.
In addition to the student awards, WMMS history teacher Stephanie Hammer received the Naval Historical Society’s Teacher of Distinction Award for 2021.
“This award is given to teachers of those students who place first, second or third nationally in their respective categories for projects with a naval or maritime theme,” according to the press release. “Mrs. Hammer has participated in NHD for more than 10 years and her students always do exceptionally well at all levels of NHD competitions.”
“While we talk about awards for the students, we think that Mrs. Hammer has done a really, really wonderful job—not just with these kids but in all the years since we’ve seen,” said Marri’s dad during the ceremony, presenting Hammer with a potted orchid.
Hammer has participated in NHD since 2009, when her own daughter was in sixth grade.
“This is our 12th year. We’ve had two other students place third [one was Bruton in 2020] but this is our first first-place (national) award,” she said. “National History Day is probably the reason why I’m still a teacher, and I appreciate Caroline and Kayla winning because that’s why I got the (Naval Historical Foundation) prize.”
Hammer’s prize comes with a $200 honorarium, a certificate of excellence and a three-year membership to the Naval Historical Foundation.
During the celebration in the middle school library July 1, the students’ documentaries were screened for their parents and teachers and they were given homemade cupcakes and balloons.
“We cannot underestimate the impact this school year has had on our students,” said sixth-grade U.S. History teacher Barbara Aszbach. “None of us will forget it; most certainly our students will not. But the three students we are celebrating today—Mukund, Kayla and Caroline—have a unique experience among their peers. … Our three winners here today went beyond simple and fleshed out the idea of communication in a new way.”
Both documentaries will be available for viewing during the month of August at the Greene County Historical Society museum, 360 Main St. in Stanardsville. The recording of the virtual awards ceremony is available on the NHD website, nhd.org/virtual2021winners.