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Louisiana Teacher Won't Accept Surface-Level Answers

Gwendolyn Durham’s favorite word to use in class is “why.”

“My students can get exasperated when I keep asking them ‘why, why, why,’ but it helps them expand and think more critically about the original answer,” says Durham, an Advanced Placement® Biology teacher at Tara High School in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and NMSI’s December Teacher of the Month.

Durham recently used the word during a lesson on cellular respiration. She started the class by asking students, “Why do we breathe?” The first response was “because we want to live.” Not satisfied with this answer, Durham continued to prod for a deeper perspective until her class discussed how breathing gives us oxygen for cellular respiration so we can get the energy needed to function.

Knowing she wanted to teach from a young age, Durham’s first role as an educator was homeschooling her children. Once they were older, she decided to go back to school, major in science and begin teaching biology at Tara High, where she’s been for seven years.


The constantly evolving nature of science fascinates Durham. With biology, she likes that it’s a subject that easily ties into students’ everyday lives. For one research project, the class explores different types of cancer, which inevitably leads to talking about family and friends battling the disease.

Starting this year, Durham transformed Tara High’s Biology II course into an AP Biology class. Students who haven’t taken an AP course before are now being exposed to college-level coursework. “There was a little pushback in the beginning because of the rigor, but as we got into the school year and by the end of the semester, students finally realized they can do pretty well,” Durham says.

Building confidence in advanced classes is what matters – not whether students pass the AP exam.

“I know that when they leave my class, they’re equipped with the ability to look at a situation, break it down and think through the process,” Durham says. “It’s a necessary life skill.”

NMSI Partnership

Durham first started teaching AP Biology when NMSI launched its three-year College Readiness Program at Tara High in 2017. She says the NMSI teacher trainings have been particularly helpful for educators who are new to AP. NMSI also gave her class resources for hands-on lab activities that the school wasn’t able to afford.

One useful NMSI lab Durham uses in class involves different ways to measure plant transpiration, or the loss of water through evaporation in leaves. Students try out different variables, like placing the plant in the dark, light or near a fan, and determine how much water is gained or lost. “It was a simple, easy lab for them to work through, and it helps the kids do graphing and work on their math skills,” Durham says.

Working through the scientific process means failing and trying again. Durham sees this as one of the most important ways she can mentor her students.

“I want the kids to know that I’m fallible and make mistakes just like everyone else,” she says. “I want to teach them that you learn from your mistakes, keep trying and never give up.”