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Love of language sparks award-winning initiatives

Kristen B. Morales

October 21, 2015


A College of Education faculty member has been recognized for her role in influencing bilingual education to Georgia schools.

Melisa "Misha" Cahnmann-Taylor, a professor of TESOL and world language education in the College of Education's Department of Language and Literacy Education, has been named one of two University of Georgia-based recipients of the Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award. This prestigious award recognizes faculty members "who have inspired their former students to make a significant contribution to society." UGA is the only university in the country with two 2015 recipients, and each winner receives a $25,000 cash prize. The other UGA winner is Dawn Bennett-Alexander of the Terry College of Business.

UGA is the only institution in the country to have two Beckmann recipients, and Cahnmann-Taylor is one of the youngest recipients of the Beckman Award, which was given to 10 faculty members across the country. Her honor stems from the support she gave to former students who created the first two public bilingual schools in Georgia.

"Arts and language are my mission," said Cahnmann-Taylor. "I feel humbled to accept this award."

More than a decade ago, one of Cahnmann-Taylor's former students, Dell Perry Giles, approached her with an idea for a bilingual school. It was an idea Giles had been trying to start in Atlanta Public Schools, where she worked after graduation, but had difficulty selling the idea to officials of teaching elementary school in two languages.

With Cahnmann-Taylor's encouragement, Giles took the idea to Clayton County, which at the time had a higher Hispanic population than the rest of the state. Giles opened Unidos Dual Language Charter School in 2006, with the goal of making native English and Spanish speakers bilingual by the time they reach middle school.

Unidos' success inspired another of Cahnmann-Taylor's former students, Carrie Woodcock, to advocate for another bilingual school in Hall County, north of Atlanta. Today, the World Language Academy immerses all students in Spanish and English, and also provides foreign language instruction in Mandarin and Portuguese.

The success of these programs spawned more programs at schools across the state, and has also created a sea change of thought surrounding when and how languages are taught. This year, 20 public schools offer dual-language bilingual education in Georgia.

"Following Misha's example of putting people in the right places to make educational reform and providing them with the models they critically need, both our schools have opened their doors to hundreds of educators from across the Southeast and abroad who come to see innovation in action," Giles and Woodcock wrote in their nomination letter.

The Beckman Award is one more in a long list of accomplishments for Cahnmann-Taylor, including the Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg and Leeway Poetry prizes. As a Fulbright Scholar, she traveled to Oaxaca, Mexico, and studied American adults' acquisition of Spanish language as well as Mexican cultural practices. She has expanded bilingual education in Georgia by recruiting bilingual adults to become certified teachers and led a six-year, $1 million federal grant program to support this effort. She is the co-author of "Teachers Act Up: Creating Multicultural Community Through Theatre" and "Arts-Based Research in Education."

"Professors Bennett-Alexander and Cahnmann-Taylor exemplify the far-reaching impact of the instruction and mentorship that our faculty members provide, and I am delighted that their dedication to students has been recognized with the Beckman Award," said Pamela Whitten, senior vice president for academic affairs and provost.

The Elizabeth Hurlock Beckman Award Trust was established in 2008 by Gail McKnight Beckman, who created the award in memory of her mother. Elizabeth Beckman was one of the first female psychology professors at Columbia University, authored nine books on child and adolescent psychology and was a champion of gender equality and an advocate for the advancement of women in academia. Since its inception in 2008, the Beckman Award Trust has awarded more than $1 million to dozens of faculty members from top institutions across the country.

The award ceremony will take place Nov. 14 in Atlanta.