Tara Bone, contributing writer
In JoLyne Merchant’s classroom, her 133 history students do more than memorize facts—they ask big questions and uncover answers by researching, analyzing and bringing the past to life.
JoLyne believes history is the place to find answers to modern-day challenges. She said every day she leads her students through the past, always tying the past to the present and making it relevant in her students’ daily lives.
“History is worth something, it’s not just dates and names,” she said. “It’s a place we find answers for a successful future.”
JoLyne has been finding answers and working with students for 16 years. She currently teaches 7th and 8th graders at Thomas Edison Charter School’s south campus in Nibley. She said her desire to teach every day comes from her students and the opportunity she has to impact their learning.
“I love the kids. I always tell them they’re why I love my job,” she said. “They’re amazing and middle school is an age you can really influence them to see the bigger picture.”
Each year, all of JoLyne’s students see a bigger picture as they participate in the National History Day (NHD) program. NHD is a hands-on learning program in which students choose a historical topic to conduct extensive research on and then present their findings in a documentary, website, paper, performance or exhibit. The 3-D exhibits can be up to 6 feet tall. Students present their projects to judges and can move on to regional, state and national competitions.
Since starting NHD in her classroom 13 years ago, every year JoLyne has had a student compete at nationals in Washington D.C. According to nhd.org, more than half a million middle school and high school students participate annually in the program, and only a fraction of those compete at the national competition held in Washington, D.C. every June.
For JoLyne, the NHD experience is valuable for all students because they get excited about history and learn important skills.
“They learn how to research, they know how to do a bibliography, and they know how to work and complete a big project,” she said. “Especially in this day of false news, they know how to analyze a source and think critically.”
JoLyne is humble about her impact. She is seen coming in early, staying late to work with students and pouring over student projects. She also oversees the Cache and Box Elder County History Fair in the spring and helps with the state fair. Others have taken notice of her work, too. She was awarded the 2015 NHD Behring Ambassador Teacher of the Year, the 2012 Behring Ambassador History Teacher of the Year and Utah’s 2009 History Teacher of the Year.
Kathyrn Fielding also feels the influence of Merchant’s efforts because many of her children have had Merchant as a history teacher. Kathyrn’s son, Carter, competed in the national history fair competition in Washington DC two years in a row “because of Mrs. Merchant’s caring and continual guidance.”
Kathyrn feels that Merchant has instilled a love of researching and learning into her children that will carry them through their entire lives.
“She expects great things from her students and they rise to the challenge,” Kathyrn said. “She brings history to life and guides them to greatness!”
Where did JoLyne’s passion for teaching and curiosity for learning come from? The dinner table with her dad.
“We’d sit at the table and ask [dad] questions, and if he didn’t know the answer, he’d jump up and run over to the encyclopedias on the book shelf and look up the answer,” she said. “That’s where my love of learning came from, seeing him, when he didn’t know the answer he’d look it up. It grew from there.”
Her love for history doesn’t just stop at the history books. JoLyne and her husband, Cody, live it. They provide historical demonstrations with period artifacts through their company, Merchant Historical Enterprises.
In 2002, the Salt Lake Olympic Committee asked them to show the world how Native American and fur traders lived. For weeks, the Merchant family, with their young children, turned back time and lived all day and into the night on Washington Square in Salt Lake City in their tepee.
JoLyne said she enjoys doing historical demonstrations because they try to get rid of stereotypes and help people understand different cultures.
“We try to dispel myths, we let them feel, touch, and work with artifacts, so they can see how things worked,” she said. “They’re excellent primary sources.”
In the spare minutes she has, JoLyne likes to play games with her family. Her son Wyatt is 20, daughter Cimmeron is 24, and youngest son Montana is 13. They live in Hyrum and enjoy spending time outdoors. But the outdoors may have to wait because the school history fair day is December 14. Mrs. Merchant and her students will be working overtime.