Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Queen Extragavanza

I saw the Queen Extravaganza the other night here in Houston. It was one of the best rock concerts I've ever seen -- great musicians, electric energy, spot-on performances.

 The nine-member tribute band -- including two lead guitarists and four main singers (plus a drummer who sings lead on one song) -- came about because Queen drummer Roger Taylor got tired of seeing poorly done tribute bands in England:
Why start your own Queen tribute band? After all, you and Brian May are still playing shows together as Queen.
I was in my hometown, which is down in the sticks in England, for a visit and saw a poster outside a local hall. It read, “Queen: Appearing Live on Tuesday night.” “Well,” I thought, “That’s putting it a little strong isn’t it?”
I traveled down the road ten miles to another town and discovered another poster that promised, “Queen Appearing Live Tonight.” That’s when I got the idea to do something that was a little closer to our production values.
Taylor called for Internet auditions, and was able to collect a stunning group of professional-quality musicians. Here's what he says about several of the singers, for example:
Q. Why are four singers necessary?
A. It enables us to cover the massive harmonies that Queen couldn’t cover live before, though we could in the studio. I have a fantastic rock performer in Jeff Scott Soto. He puts over the hard rock stuff great. There’s a girl, Jennifer Espinoza, who does the ballad stuff and has an incredibly low voice for a woman. She puts over some great stuff in a more melodic way. Yvan Pedneault is just a fantastic performer with a high, pure range in his voice. … We get to do “Bohemian Rhapsody” from beginning to end, which we would have never have been able to do before because we didn’t have enough singers.
But the main lead singer -- Marc Martel, of the Canadian band Downhere -- has caught everyone's eye. In Taylor's words:
We have Marc Martel singing with us, and the weird thing is you close your eyes, and Freddie Mercury is in the room. It’s an extraordinary and uncanny audio resemblance. That gives us a head start.
Indeed. Martel's singing in his original audition is so close to Freddie Mercury's that some people initially thought he was lip-syncing (he wasn't):


 Martel's previous performance of Bohemian Rhapsody was, if anything, even more uncannily reminiscent of Mercury:

 I didn't get any videos from the Houston (nor did many people, as the security people were very strict), but here are some samples of videos from the Queen Extravaganza performances in other cities.


In this classic love song, Marc Martel sounds even better than Freddie Mercury did when singing live (and he sings it in a higher key too).

"Under Pressure":


 "Don't Stop Me Now":


 "We Are the Champions":


 Amazingly, Martel's ability to mimic doesn't end with Freddie Mercury. He can do an eerily accurate rendition of Keith Green, for example:

His latest hobby is doing opera -- here he is singing Nessun Dorma:


All of that without ever having voice lessons. And as if that weren't enough, when I met Martel briefly after the concert, he said that he can also imitate Bono and George Michael! (He should put up some YouTube videos of that, just for the fun of it.) What an amazing talent.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Common Core and Nonfiction, Again

Writing at "Parents Across America," Arkansas professor Sandra Stotsky waxes eloquent about the destruction David Coleman is supposedly wreaking via the Common Core standards:
Why did David Coleman mandate over 50% reading time on “informational” texts in K-5 and up to 70% thereafter in the form of ten grade-level informational reading standards and nine grade-level literature standards at every educational level in the Common Core standards in English Language Arts? . . . These already weakened middle or junior high school English classes are the classes Coleman wants to see teaching over 50% informational text (or “literary nonfiction.”). . . .
Coleman’s misunderstanding of how the structure of the secondary school alters the amount of time available for all genres of literary study, compared with the time available to elementary teachers in a self-contained classroom, was apparently responsible for his mandate that over 50% of the reading time in the ELA class be devoted to informational texts (or “literary nonfiction” in the high school) from K-12. While a self-contained elementary classroom enables the teacher to use a good part of the school day for expository reading and other language arts (like public speaking), the English teacher has only 45-60 minutes a day or the equivalent in 2 blocks a week to teach everything assigned to the English curriculum. These rigid prescriptions to require more informational text (even in the form of “literary nonfiction”) make no sense when applied to the daily 45-60 minute secondary English class.
Like Diane Ravitch, Stotsky is seems to believe that David Coleman and Common Core standards are trying to mandate that 50 or more percent of English classes be spent on non-fiction.

To quote the Common Core website:
Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction—than has been traditional. Because the ELA classroom must focus on literature (stories, drama, and poetry) as well as literary nonfiction, a great deal of informational reading in grades 6–12 must take place in other classes if the NAEP assessment framework is to be matched instructionally.
The Common Core website even adds a footnote to make clear that ELA teachers are not at issue:
The percentages on the table reflect the sum of student reading, not just reading in ELA settings. Teachers of senior English classes, for example, are not required to devote 70 percent of reading to informational texts. Rather, 70 percent of student reading across the grade should be informational.

Friday, June 08, 2012

Teachers Matter

Diane Ravitch is confused by something that Melinda Gates recently said about the potential of teachers:
When Melinda Gates was interviewed on the PBS Newshour on June 4, she said something that surprised me. I will give you the full quote, which I copied from the Newshour website. I was surprised because I never heard that claim, I don’t know whose research she was citing or if it even exists. I checked with Linda Darling-Hammond, who seems to have read every study of teacher effectiveness, and asked her if she knew the source; she said she had never heard this claim and had no idea where Melinda Gates got this information, if it exists.
So, I ask my readers, and I ask you to ask your friends in the academic world, do you have a citation for this statement?

MELINDA GATES: Well, we know from good research that the fundamental thing that makes a difference in the classroom is an effective teacher. An effective teacher in front of a student, that student will make three times the gains in a school year that another student will make.
This was fairly easy to find, as I'd read it before.  Melinda Gates is referring to a 2011 Eric Hanushek article, which said, "The magnitude of the differences is truly large, with some teachers producing 1.5 years of gain in achievement in an academic year while others with equivalent students produce only 1/2 year of gain."

The original source for the finding is Eric Hanushek, "The Trade-off between Child Quantity and Quality," Journal of Political Economy 100 no. 1 (1992): 84-117 (at p. 107). The article can be downloaded here. His dataset was from the Gary Income Maintenance Experiment, which took place between 1971 and 1975, and which involved exclusively low-income black children.

So it's not the most recent or externally valid finding one could wish for, that's certainly true. But is it so implausible that some teachers could produce 1.5 years of learning while others produce half a year? The real questions would be how many teachers are in each category and how we can identify them accurately, without crediting or blaming them for outside-school factors.

And an even bigger question would be whether we could design an educational system (other than homeschooling or private tutoring) that didn't force kids into the straitjacket of a single grade every year, but was instead so tailored to their individual needs that they could move 1.5 or more years ahead in one subject even if they were on or behind grade level in another subject.