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The Photo-Journalist Approach

    Beginning with nothing other than a few yellowed pages dating back decades, 150 Palo Alto High School students set out to discover details that could not be predicted or imagined before.  These papers, covered in signatures, have remained untouched since the day that dozens of World War II allied generals signed their names and made history.
    Teacher David Rapaport has been creating class projects like these for his history classes since he began teaching.
    "Every year we do a study of a primary document which makes it challenging but also really rewarding," Rapaport said. "One year we investigated a telegram and ended up inviting the daughter of the recipient to come and speak for us.  We also had a truly memorable experience doing a project on Dina Babbit who unfortunately recently passed away."
    Rapaport had the idea for this year's focus when he came across the papers in an auction for historical artifacts.
    "I was looking at some Beverly Hills material catalogues and I came across a list of signatures and thought, 'Wow that would be a neat thing to try and explore,'" Rapaport said.  "I came across a lot of impressive names and thought that it would be a truly interesting investigation experience especially since these were instructional materials that had never been studied before."
    In addition to being among the first group of people to ever possess these papers, this year's project can be differentiated from past years in the way that the final product has been presented.
    "The major difference is that this year it was completely web-based, and because there was no book, the students had more control over the product, and it was completely student driven compared to the designing of books in the past," Rapaport said.
    Although the "build your own website" format allowed for more student control, it also provided for more potential difficulties and unforeseen challenges.
    "The greatest difficulties were technical because we were assured that we would be able to do things that it turned out we couldn't," Rapaport said. "The company told me that we would be able to have multiple people using the server at once, but surprisingly enough it turned out that the site crashed so we lost momentum on research days when students couldn't upload."
    Students also found using the Internet frustrating to work with at times for many reasons.
    "The website editing software was challenging to work with and was fairly glitchy," Paly junior Austin Shiau said. "I ended up having to call the help line and they were quite considerate, but their 30 min waiting line was too much to be worth it."
    Despite some speed bumps inhibiting student work along the way, the final products have proved to be outstanding and have uncovered a great deal of information that was not previously accessible to the public.  As it is a public website, anyone can gain access and see the work published on signaturesofwar.com.
It's a really neat thing how when I typed in a student's name and a general's name, our website came up first," Rapaport said. "It broadcasts the students' work to the widest possible audience and I'm really pleased that it has reached so far. I've gotten emails from as far as New York and Tanzania with people asking 'What's this about?"
    In addition to viewers that happen to stumble across the site, Rapaport believes that colleges researching prospective students online could view their work in a positive light.
    "As far as college admittance tracking online sources on students I think that this website will produce a favorable high quality work product for them to see," Rapaport said.
    Some students plan to share their work with people they know as well as using it as a topic to discuss in college applications and interviews.
    "I'll be able to share it with friends and relatives, and the website will be a lasting evidence of my work," junior Emma Lenke said. "Maybe it will be viewed by colleges or it could be something that I could mention in my college application process as one of my academic challenges."
    Each student had the opportunity to choose their own topic based off of something they viewed on the list whether it was a biography on a general or social documentation of the project itself.
Students selected their projects brilliantly," Rapaport said. "All of the generals on the list are amazing and should be remembered as they were essentially the ones who won the war and beat fascism."
    While a majority of the students used the internet to gain information about their topic, some, like junior Noah Miller, used other primary resources and looked beyond easily accessible websites and books.
I think the assignment left a lot of room for those who did not want to do anything interesting to remain uninspired, but interviewing my grandpa turned out to be incredible," Miller said. "It's amazing to see from the point of view of an almost 90 year old man. He's been through so much in his life, and you can hear it in his voice when you listen to the interview. The truth behind the whole 'frame of reference' thing really sticks out when you listen to someone who comes from such a different place in life. It's just humbling to see how different things look when you look at it from a different place."
    In addition to speaking to his WWII veteran grandfather, Miller used other interesting sources to gain a new perspective on his topic.
    "In addition to the primary source of my grandpa, I used many secondary sources such as the lecture from the visiting Stanford professor and various articles from Jstor," Miller said.
    While the amount of time spent working ranged from three to 30 hours, most students preferred this long-term project to regular classwork.
    "I enjoyed this project because it was more interactive than usual classwork," junior Anabel Homnack said. "I enjoyed interviewing other students and listening to how they did their research. I also had the benefit of learning various things rather than just focusing on one general."
    Other students also felt that this project allowed them to research a topic that they truly had an interest in rather than one that was handed to them directly by a teacher.
    "I was able to choose a path that interested me and corralled my talents toward documenting the process," junior John Brunett said. "This made the project relatively easy, because I liked what I was doing and felt it had meaning."
    The project allowed students to improve in various aspects of their skill sets outside of the basic WWII knowledge as well.
    "This project, frankly, has helped me improve upon how my research skills," junior Tobey Nelson-Gal said. "The Paly website and other domains such as those from several universities have shown me more efficient ways of going about collecting data as opposed to just scanning through copious links on Google.
    Although the process sometimes proved to be difficult and involved many different steps, the ending result was worth the overall effort.
    "My work mostly included scouring through pages, evaluating the validity of the information,\ and extracting the important things about the general," Lenke said. "I spent time most of my time refining my own writing on the subject, trying to make it elaborate but still easy to absorb.
    Looking back on the past months of work, each student has come so far in their research and growth as a whole in addition to simply having a presentable final product.
    "Some of the students have turned out to be little PhD's," Rapaport said. "They are so sophisticated and have tapped into skills that they didn't know they possessed."


Student Laura Rossiter asks for help from teacher David Rapaport.


Patrick Carilli uses the website FindaGrave.com to find information on the general that he is researching.


Students are presented with a cart of laptop computers on each research day to work with.


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Each day in class that is assigned for research is marked by a large R written on the chalkboard.


A work-in-progress translation of the list of generals is posted at the front of the classroom.


Students can choose to work either alone or in groups on their projects and collaborate on their research.


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