One of the most engaging activities I do in class with my Middle Schoolers when we tackle non-fiction is our quest to find the real killer of the Lindbergh baby. You may ask, "How can that be? Bruno Richard Hauptmann was tried, convicted and executed for that crime 80 years ago!" Well, yes, he was. But the case was so flawed, it doesn't take an FBI-trained officer to see that the wrong man may have been blamed. Or, possibly, been guilty but didn't act alone. In either case, the students get into the story and background and are determined to find out who the real killer(s) are...
I begin with a two page summary of the kidnapping. You can find them all over the internet. Once they understand what happened, and view the key pieces of evidence (the note, the location of the baby's body, the home-made ladder..) and throw in the fact that it was a rainy night, no one knew the Lindberghs were even at their vacation home that night, there was no way anyone went down that ladder holding a baby... well, before you know it, the students will be throwing conspiracy theories, other evidence, and motives at you like hot potatoes. The internet has the drawings of the layout of the home, aerial views of the property, photos of the ladder propped against the house, and a list of mistresses of Lindbergh Sr. that all lend credibility to the idea that he might have been involved.
I give them 3 days to search the evidence, work in groups to go over theories, and watch videos. Then they write a 5 paragraph essay with an introduction, thesis statement (focusing on who they think really did it, and why) and their body of proof to support their claim. On the day their papers are due, I invite our school resource officer to sit in on the class. They each informally present their suspects and motive, and the officer quizzes them and tries to disprove their claim. (Officer: What about footprints? Wasn't it raining out?" Student: "Yes! They found footprints - same size as Lindbergh's!" Officer: "They found the baby's body in the woods." Student: "No! They found A body, probably not THE body. There was an orphanage nearby, and it could have been a baby from there!") I'm always amazed at the theories and motives the students throw out during the discussion. It's obvious that they did some research, and I've heard from parents that it was often the dinner conversation each night for that week.
I also throw in a quick lesson on domain-specific vocabulary. In this case, we go over a list of police terminology so that when they are presenting, they are using words such as motive, indictment, evidence, conspiracy, alleged, felony, etc. They love learning the terms and using them. And, you'll be surprised at how many CSI TV program watchers you have in your class!
I love this research/writing lesson because it gets my students involved in local history - the Lindbergh's vacation home where the kidnapping occurred is not far from our school in New Jersey, and that helps the students relate to it . It is also a great way to practice formal essay writing and thesis statements and all that goes along with that. Oh, throw in public speaking as well.
Some links to get you started:
FBI information on the kidnapping
The American Experience on PBS: Lindbergh Kidnapping
NJ State Police Lindbergh Kidnapping Evidence Photographs