Wednesday, November 25, 2015


For the past four years I've joined a valiant force of high school AP English teachers and other college writing teachers like myself to score the infamous AP English Language and Composition tests. I've written about it on my personal family blog in past years, but there is enough travel and tourism involved that I think it is worth a mention here. Rather than reinvent the wheel--or rewrite the post--I am going to borrow some of what I have already written from my previous posts on my other blog.

For my first three years the reading took place in Louisville, Kentucky, a city I hadn't been to previous to my AP experience. This year the English Lang & Comp scoring was moved to Kansas City, Missouri, another new city for me. I had gotten pretty comfortable in Louisville and felt like I'd seen what I wanted to see there, so I was really excited about the move. Incorporated in 1853, Kansas City now has a population of about 470,000. While that is about two-thirds the population of Louisville, I figured there would still be plenty to see and do during our free time in the evenings.

A little bit of background on the AP Reading here would probably be helpful. Friends and family look pretty skeptical when I tell them that I really enjoy the AP scoring work. Honestly, it's rather hard to believe it myself. After all, I am the Queen of Grading Avoidance when it comes to my own students' papers, but there are many things that are wonderfully rewarding about the AP scoring experience.

First, the AP Reading gives me a family of about 2,000 other English teachers for the eight days we are together. (Yes, EIGHT CONSECUTIVE DAYS of reading essays from 8:00 AM to 5:00 PM.) We trade quips and tips about our teaching experiences, and during those eight days I feel the camaraderie that is sadly lacking for adjunct professors at community colleges. 

Second, I am amazed by attitude of these teachers. Everyone arrives on time in the morning. We work hard, focusing on the work in front of us. There is no goofing off during our work sessions--no whispering, no texting, no photography, and absolutely no use of any form of social media in the scoring rooms. Okay, so there might be an occasional person staring blankly into space for short periods of time (Who, me?), but for the most part the work ethic is pretty incredible, which I think says a lot about America's teachers, and I love being part of that. (Our table leaders do supply us with copious amounts of chocolate and other treats. Any person who has graded stacks of papers knows that constant munching is the key to focus.)

Third, the College Board (the nonprofit corporation that runs the AP system, the SAT/PSAT tests, etc.)  treats the readers very well. It pays all our travel costs and gives us a pretty good stipend. There are so many of us that we take up two hotels. This year we were split between the Westin and Sheraton, both first-class places.

As you can see, the two hotels are connected by a glass walkway. I was staying on the 12th floor in the Sheraton with this delightful lady from Oregon as my roommate:
My Redlands friends were in the other tower, so every morning I had a brisk morning walk from my room, down the stairs or elevator (depending on the crowds), and across the skywalk to the lobby of the other hotel, where we would meet up.

The Westin Lobby:
The Westin is so classy that it has an Alexander Calder sculpture near the main entrance:
From the Westin we hopped onto one of several shuttle buses that ran back and forth to the Kansas City Convention Center, where we ate breakfast, lunch, and dinner in one of the dining halls and spent the rest of our day scoring in other rooms. The food was actually pretty good, and if I didn't like what they were serving, there was always a massive salad bar.

A fourth benefit of the trip is the chance to try regional foods. Just when I thought I couldn't eat one more cafeteria meal, the College Board paid for "Dine Out Night," a chance to go "out on the town" for dinner. Kansas City's food deserves its own post, but here is a teaser:
The word "barbecue" pretty much sums up the local cuisine, and I think it might be the best barbecue I've ever had--better than Texas, better even than Memphis. Maybe that's why the running trails in the Kansas City Parks have outdoor gym equipment/weight machines available for use by any passerby.

How do they keep these in good repair? Do they take them inside during the heavy snows of winter?
A fifth benefit of participating in the AP scoring is that the College Board makes sure we are entertained. Every year there is an evening when an author speaks, and this year's lecture began with a most unusual performance:

Besides the fun music, we got to listen to a fascinating lecture that same evening delivered by Richard Rhodes, author of the book The Making of the Atomic Bomb, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, a National Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award. He just came out with a memoir entitled A Hole in the World: An American Boyhood, and it was primarily that book that he discussed.
The sixth and final reason I love the AP scoring experience is because I get a lot of exposure to new things and places. For example, the Convention Center dining room had a wonderful view of the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts:
Opened in September 2011, this stunning hall was designed by Moshe Safdie, an Israeli-Canadian-American architect who is best known for designing the building shown below, Habitat 67 in Montreal, Canada:
Habitat 67, photo from Wikipedia
The Kansas City Symphony, the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and the Kansas City Ballet (yes, this is a cultured city) all perform in the Kauffman Center's two halls, one of which seats 1,600 and the other 1,800.
We didn't get a chance to enjoy a performance in this hall, but now that I know about it I'm hoping to go to some kind of performance there next year.

I loved this statue of a pioneer mother that was near our hotels. It is placed on a high hill in Penn Valley Park (near the World War I Museum) overlooking the Missouri and Kaw River Valleys:
 Around the base the words from Ruth are inscribed: "Wither thou goest, I will go; where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people and thy God my God."
The statue stands within a few hundred feet of a branch of the Santa Fe Trail. It was presented to the city by Howard Vanderslice and dedicated in 1927. Vanderslice's own mother had been a pioneer on the plains.
The inscription reads: "To commemorate the pioneer mother who with unfaltering trust in God suffered the hardship of the unknown west to prepare for us a homeland of peace and plenty."

One evening we bought tickets for a bus tour of Kansas City. It started at the old Beaux Arts-style Union Station which, when it was built in 1914, was the second largest train station in the United States.
Union Station with Downtown KC in the background
These days there are still four Amtrak trains that use this station, but its primary use is as a home to a couple of museums, a few shops, and several restaurants. The ceiling in the Grand Hall is 95 feet tall:

 I especially loved this piano, decorated with all the sites Kansas City is known for:
Why the badminton birdies? Stay tuned for my post on the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum.

The piano was painted by Charlie Podrebarac, Kansas City's "Cartoon Laureate."
 You might be familiar with his comic strip, "Cowtown":
After looking around Union Station, we hopped on this bus:
. . . and enjoyed one of the best city tours I've been on. Our guide was knowledgeable, funny, enthusiastic, and totally in love with her city, affectionately referred to by locals as "KC." The remainder of this post discusses a few of the things we saw as we putt-putted around town.

The area where the Convention Center is located is called the Power & Light District. Scroll up to the first piano picture and you'll see these iconic Bartle Hall Pylons painted on the panel above the keyboard:
Our guide told us that the four ornaments that top the posts cost something like a million dollars each. While these 335-feet-tall pillars might look a lot like power stations, their job is to hold up part of the Convention Center that is suspended over a dip in the street that allows cars to drive underneath.

With a name like the Power & Light District, you'd think this is the industrial area, right? Maybe it once was, but today it is the shopping and entertainment district of downtown KC, and it's a happening place.  (This neighborhood is one of the only areas in the United States that allows possession and consumption of open alcoholic beverages on the street.) Here is its namesake Power & Light Building, built in the Art Deco style in 1931:
We passed by the Sprint Center, and indoor arena built in 2007 that seats about 20,000:
The green glass building on the left is the new H & R Block corporate headquarters. The skyscraper on the right, known simply as One Kansas City Place, is the tallest building in Missouri (624 feet tall, 42 floors):
With 29 floors, the City Hall (shown below, left) is the fourth-tallest city hall in the world. It was built in 1937 by the city's politcal "boss" Tom Pendergast, who owned the concrete company that profited tremendously from its construction. (He also managed to somehow keep Prohibition from coming the Kansas City.) The Western Auto building on the right was originally built for Coca-Cola in 1914. It's hard to tell from the photo, but it is triangular in shape. Western Auto took over the building some years later, and it is now a city landmark:
I'm always on the lookout for murals, and there are several fun ones along the tour bus route:

On our way to the other side of town we passed this interesting sculpture, a mess of metal pipes suspended by wires. It is called Triple Crown (1991) and was designed by Kenneth Snelson, a student of Buckminster Fuller. I'm sure it has some kind of mathematical or scientific significance, but it reminded me of a game of Pick Up Sticks--and of what my hair looks like some mornings: 

Four miles south on the other side of town is the Country Club Plaza shopping district, often referred to simply as "The Plaza." When Bob joined me at the end of the scoring for some exploring fun, we stayed in a hotel in this area. 
It was the first shopping area in the world designed to receive customers arriving by automobile, so there is plenty of parking, but it is tastefully hidden underground, behind buildings, and on the tops of some of the roofs.

Most of the Plaza was completed in the early 1920s and is based on the architecture of Seville, Spain. It has the longest continuous life of any planned shopping center in the world. In Kansas City, in the heart of America? Who would have guessed? 

The Giralda Tower (below) is a one-half scale replica of the original tower in Seville. When J. C. Nichols, the developer of this area, visited Spain, he was so taken by this tower that he had to have one. The Seville version was originally the minaret of a 12th century mosque but had become a Christian church in the 1600s and a bell tower had been added: 
One of my favorite pieces of outdoor art in the city is this wild boar drinking from a mud hole. It is one of three copies in the world of the 1857 sculpture by the Italian artist Benelli. The original sits in the New Market of Florence. Kansas City is chock-full of surprises like this.
One of the things Kansas City is known for is its outdoor fountains--over 200 of them, such as this one in front of Union Station:
The most famous and most photographed fountain in the city is the J. C. Nichols Memorial Fountain, located in the Plaza district.
The bronze sculptures were created for a wealthy family in Long Island, New York, in 1910 and sold to the Nichols family in the 1950s. There are four horsemen clinging to their bucking steeds, each representing a the major river of the world: the Mississippi (fending off an alligator), the Volga (fighting a bear), the Seine, and the Rhine.

No great city is complete (in my mind, at least) without a few spectacular churches. This is the Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception. The cornerstone was laid in 1882 and the first mass was held in the unfinished interior in 1883. At the time it was the tallest building in Kansas City, and visitors would pay to climb the steps to the top of the tower for a view of the city. That is one of the things I want to do on my next visit:

Another church I would like to return to is the Our Lady of Perpetual Help Catholic Church, also known more simply as the Redemptorist Church (the Redemptors are an order of priests), which was built from 100 tons of native limestone and was dedicated in 1912. I've read that it has spectacular Tiffany stained glass windows:

My first visit to Kansas City courtesy of the College Board scored a 5. (If you are familiar with AP tests, you know that's the top score.) There are many more fountains I'd like to see, churches I'd like to enter, barbecue joints I'd like to visit, a symphony I'd like to hear, sidewalks I want to stroll down, museums I hope to examine, and shopping areas where I'd like to pull out my credit card. (And I suppose there are also a thousand tests or so that I "want" to score.) 

What a great city.


  1. Oh my goodness, this looks like so much fun! You must have to pay THEM to come be a AP scorer, right?

  2. I love the cartoon covered piano. The churches look like something we need to visit, but the best thing, the food, needs to seriously be studied and tasted.

  3. Fun to see this tour of Kansas City. Now I have that tune stuck in my head.