They just couldn’t keep their eyes off the impressive collection.
The first time they saw them, some of Andy Merritt’s students at State College Area High School admitted, they were distracted by the historic posters, flags and quotes that cover about every inch of his classroom.
Now, they’re accustomed to the items — and Merritt. They say the erudite decorative scheme suits him, but he’s quick to point out who truly owns it all.
“That’s all the students’,” Merritt said. “I tell them at the beginning of the year it’s their classroom. It’s not my classroom. It’s theirs, and I work for them.”
In his 20th year as a history teacher at State High, and 24th overall in the classroom, Merritt starts another semester with a special accolade to his name. He recently was one of three educators to be named 2014 American Lawyers Alliance Law-Related Education Teacher of the Year.
Deb Poveromo, State High’s social studies coordinator, nominated him.
“The dynamic energy he brings to the classroom each and every day excites his students to learn about government, law and politics,” she wrote in her nomination letter.
Merritt deflected the recognition.
“Being a teacher, it’s not really about me, so I was reluctant at first to be nominated,” Merritt said. “It is really about the students, but I was surprised and honored to get the award. My family got to go to Boston to accept it, and that was an exciting trip for all of us.”
The award recognized Merritt for his contributions in law-related education.
During his career, Merritt has instituted several projects in which students simulate real-life scenarios and gain hands-on knowledge.
His “Amend the Constitution Experience” project challenges seniors to amend the U.S. Constitution. Students in Merritt’s classes also have opportunities to go to Penn State to conduct constitutional law trials, in which they prepare briefs and present arguments before law school faculty and students.
He also formed Creating Awareness Using Student Engagement, a State High organization dedicated to raising awareness of issues such as homelessness, poverty and AIDS.
“A champion for the underdog, always carrying the message for social justice, Mr. Merritt instills a passion in his students that carries on with them for the rest of their lives,” Poveromo wrote in her nomination.
In the middle of a recent second-period Advanced Placement U.S. government and politics class, Merritt reminded his students that it’s up to them to learn.
“On the first day of school, what did I tell you?” he said. “I can’t teach you anything. You’ve got to want it. You have the ability, all of you, to learn, and you’ve just got to want it.”
Merritt’s effect on students has been far-reaching.
Samir Sonti graduated from State High in 2005 and worked for three years as a union organizer. He is now earning a doctorate in history at the University of California in Santa Barbara.
“I wouldn’t be doing any of this if not for the influence he had on me,” Sonti said. “My whole trajectory in my education was influenced by him in ways I probably can’t articulate. He teaches you a lot, but he doesn’t teach you what to think. He encourages you to think about things. His class really made me think about inequality in the U.S. now compared to a very different U.S. 30 to 40 years ago.”
Tessa Kisenwether, a senior, said Merritt is one of her favorite teachers, as evidenced by the abundance of underlined passages and notes in her copy of “Plato’s Cave,” which the class recently read.
“He gives you the power to have your voice heard,” Kisenwether said. “It’s really empowering to have it run sort of like a college class.”
Merritt has given students at State High a voice for more than a decade.
During the 2004 election, he had students run in primaries as Democrats, Republicans and independents, which culminated in a three-way race.
Sonti won the mock presidential election by a slim margin.
“We debated the real issues,” Sonti said. “I grew from that experience, and I like to think that it had an impact on others for us to think about social issues that we may have thought were out of our league.”
Tori Staley, who graduated from State High in 2013, said Merritt helped create an independent study for another student and her to earn a science credit.
They studied political geography — how geography influences politics.
“He took time out of his day to do it, and it showed how much he cares for his students academically,” Staley said.
“But he also cared about us personally. He influenced where I went to school when it was definitely a stressful process. I talked to him a lot, and he just said he heard in my voice that Vermont is where I wanted to go.”
Staley, now a double major in political science and studio art with a minor in Spanish at the University of Vermont, wants to pursue a political career.
Matt Lachman, a Georgetown University law student, recalled Merritt’s frequent political assignments for students to study and take on the personality of senators to debate and vote on active bills. He said they took a questionnaire at the beginning of the school year, and Merritt assigned them a senator with opposing views for mock-Senate activities.
“I’d say it was a challenge, but in a good way,” Lachman said. “I thought it was neat, because you can learn more about someone’s different point of view. You learn more when you’re forced to break out of your own mold; he had us put into action what we were learning. He deserves every accolade he gets, because he was an inspiration to many students.”
Merritt’s reputation persuaded Valeriy Sukovatitsyn to take his class.
“I heard from my siblings how great of a teacher he was, and I thought, you know, I had to take his class,” Sukovatitsyn, a senior, said. “It’s a lot different from other classes. He gives you a lot of chances to speak about what you think.”
Greg Hopp, a sophomore who sits across from Sukovatitsyn in Merritt’s first-period history class, agreed.
“It’s always a great start to the day,” Hopp said.