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2020 Teachers of Distinction and National History Day

By CAPT Jim Noone, USNR (Ret.)

Seven middle and high school teachers from five states were recognized as winners of the Naval Historical Foundation’s (NHF) “Teacher of Distinction” award at the National History Day (NHD) virtual awards recognition announcements on Saturday, June 20. 

It was the third consecutive year for NHF’s Teacher of Distinction awards, inaugurated in 2018.  The awards go to teachers in middle or high schools whose students (i) win NHF’s annual Coskey Prizes for Naval History or (ii) are ranked first, second, or third nationally in their categories for projects with a naval or maritime theme.

Over half a million middle and high school students participate annually in NHD all over the United States.  Each year some 3,000 finalists of those students and several hundred teachers descend on the University of Maryland in College Park, MD, in mid-June for the final rounds of the national competition.  This year, however, the competition was conducted in a virtual format due to the coronavirus pandemic.  

NHD has a broad theme for the contest every year.  This year’s theme was, “Breaking Barriers in History.”  Student projects are expected to be consistent with the NHD theme.

There are five project categories:  papers, exhibits, documentaries, websites, and performances.  Competition begins at individual schools, with the top middle and high school winners advancing to regional, state, and national competitions.  Some 600,000 students from the United States, District of Columbia, territories, and international schools in China, Korea and South Asia participate annually.

              The awards consist of $200 honorariums, NHF certificates of achievement, one-year NHF memberships, and access to NHF Navy-related research assistance. 

              The NHF Coskey Prizes are named after the late Captain Ken Coskey, a Navy pilot, Vietnam prisoner of war, and former NHF executive director.  The prizes were established in 1999.  Every year since then NHF has awarded two Coskey Prizes to the top ranked NHD projects in naval history.  Each prize is a $1,000 student award. 

This year’s Coskey Prize for high school students was awarded to Jesse Henderson of Bradley Central High School in Cleveland, TN.  The project was a documentary titled, “Unwelcomed Soldiers Invading a Fraternity: Breaking Gender Barriers in the U.S. Military.”  The Teacher of Distinction award went to Julie Mitchell, who teaches at Bradley Central.  

              The project was about CAPT Rosemary Mariner, one of the first six women to earn their wings as naval aviators.  It told how she helped other women be part of naval aviation and what she did in retirement after moving to Tennessee.  

              The Coskey Prize for middle school students went to Kathryn Lucente of Red Maple Academy in Milford, CT, for an exhibit, “Breaking the Wrong Barriers.”  It examined the controversy surrounding the Navy’s first female combat pilot to fly from an aircraft carrier, LT Kara Hultgreen.  LT Hultgreen was tragically killed in a crash while attempting to land on the carrier USS Abraham Lincoln.  Receiving the Teacher of Distinction award was Red Maple Academy teacher Laura Lucente.  Ms. Lucente is the mother of Kathryn.  

              Following are the other five Teacher of Distinction winners:

  • Melissa Spruill, a teacher at Cane Creek Middle School, Fletcher, NC, for mentoring an exhibit, “Brothers Like These and the Barriers They Faced after Vietnam,” which came in 3d place in the middle school exhibit category.  The project described post-traumatic distress syndrome suffered by Marines and prisoners of war, including Navy aviators, during the Vietnam war.  The project was done by students Grace Armitstead, Brady Clausen, Trapper Alonso and Sara Barlowe. 
  • David Ishii and Colleen Spring, teachers at Laie Elementary School at Laie, HI.  Their students’ project was a performance, “Breaking Barriers: How Swimwear Paved the Way to Women’s Rights.”  The project – a 3d place winner — told how allowing women to swim in relaxed and appropriate attire contributed to their interest in water sports, including ocean surfing, and hence to consider careers in the maritime area.  The performance was the work of students Annika Houghton, Auden Ho and Eden Smith
  • Irene Soohoo, a teacher at Pleasant Valley Middle School in Vancouver, WA.  She mentored a performance project by student Coltan McCall entitled, “Breaking Barriers to Restore 1855 Treaty Fishing Rights.”   The project highlighted the importance of a maritime environment to native Americans of the Pacific northwest coast.  The project came in 2d place in its category.
  • Janyce Omura, a teacher at Maui High School, Kahalui, HI.  The project was a website and came in 2d place in that category.   Title: “The Military Intelligence Service: Japanese Americans Breaking Barriers to Help End the War.”  It depicted the important role of Japanese Americans serving in the Pacific in WW II and the dilemmas they faced.  Students John Andei Balanay, Jaelen Matsuda-Williams and Sarah Sakakihara produced the project. 

In the three years since the award was initiated, NHF has recognized 43 teachers from 27 states and one territory, Guam. 

“It’s good to see such widespread interest in naval and maritime history by teachers and students,” said Admiral William Fallon, USN (Ret.), NHF chairman.  “While the students receive the NHD awards – as they should – we’re pleased to recognize the teachers who inspire the students to produce such outstanding naval and maritime projects.”  

Interestingly, one of this year’s teacher awardees, Irene Soohoo of Vancouver, WA, mentored a project that won the Coskey Prize in 2014.  Ms. Soohoo has also been participant in NHD’s internationally acclaimed Normandy Sacrifice for Freedom Teacher Institute.    

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