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UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT Lesson Plan for Middle and High School


By Laura Stewart Schmidt


When fifteen-year-old Alison’s grandfather hints their family was involved in the fiery deaths of a woman and her daughter fifty years ago, her grandmother acts like it’s his Alzheimer’s talking. Alison doesn’t believe her and decides to investigate. She is stunned to learn her grandmother was accused of starting the fatal blaze. Even though she wasn’t convicted, she was ostracized by the community and has lived her life under a cloud of suspicion. Alison is determined to find out the real cause of the fire and clear her grandmother’s name. But the house where the family died is slated for demolition in two weeks, so she’s running out of time. And the more clues she uncovers, the closer she gets to unmasking a killer–who may make Alison the next victim.


Age range: 12-15 (6-10th grades)


For Family Living/Social Studies/Science



  • Do you know anyone with Alzheimer’s?
  • What do you know about Alzheimer’s? How does it affect the victim? (Speech loss? Mobility issues? Personality? All of these?)
  • How does it differ from other degenerative diseases (Parkinson’s, Multiple Sclerosis/Lou Gehrig’s/etc.)?
  • At what point does it become too much for the family of the affected person to deal with without help?
  • What would you do if someone close to you had a spouse, grandparent, or other loved one with Alzheimer’s, and you knew they couldn’t take care of that person anymore?


For Language Arts/Family Living/Social Studies/History



  • The Spriggs’ house is in disrepair—no electricity, holes in the stairs, the closet is painted shut, canned food has been left in the basement.

What conclusions can you draw from these facts? Did someone sell the house? Abandon it?

Why hasn’t it been cared for?

How did the state Department of Natural Resources intend to use it, and why couldn’t they? If you were in charge of the state budget, how important would a DNR or conservation fund be to you?

What have you seen in your own neighborhood that is similar? What happens to a house when no one is living in it? Have those things happened to the Spriggs’ house, or not? Why, or why not?

How is the semi-rural college town of New Berlin, MN different from where you live? In what ways could it be similar or the same?

  • Decades-old canned food is discovered in the basement.

Pick a can of food off your shelf at home, or the grocery or convenience store. What is the oldest date you see?
What does “Sell by” mean? “Best by”? “Use by”? How do these differ?

How long is home-canned food expected to last?

  • Can something (instructions can be found on the internet). Visit a farmer’s market (they are everywhere May-October) and buy something that has been canned. Compare it to what you get at the store. Talk to the vendor about how they work.
  • Start a community garden with items that can be canned and feed a family during the winter when fresh fruits and vegetables are harder to find.
  • Visit different grocery stores in different neighborhoods. See how the produce offered differs. Why do you suppose this is? How long do different items last if they aren’t purchased? Why do customers in one store buy something that the people in another store don’t?
  • If you had to research an old property, how could you do it? What city or county department keeps what records? How much information is available to the public?
  • Pick a public building (Union Station, a library, an arena or recreation center, a school) and learn its history. How old is it? Has it always been what it is now? How many times has it been changed or remodeled? Who decides what happens to an old building, and why? What goes into the decision to tear down or refurbish/repurpose a building?


For History/Social Studies



  • Pick a historic natural disaster and see how people handled it.

What preparations would you make?

For a tornado?




  • How are natural disasters different? How are they the same?
  • Minnesota, in the upper Midwest and along the Mississippi River, is prone to floods and tornadoes. Choose another place in the United States you might like to live. What disasters do they have? Earthquakes, volcanoes, hurricanes, wildfires?
  • What happens during a natural disaster? Does the community help or do people adopt an “Every man for himself” attitude?
  • FEMA did not exist in 1965. What do they do now?

FEMA is widely acknowledged to have done an inadequate job of relief in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Why did that hurricane overwhelm relief efforts? What about New Orleans is unique?

How does “redlining” and segregation influence who lives in the neighborhoods likely to be hit hardest, like New Orleans’ Ninth Ward?

  • The American Red Cross does a lot of disaster relief. If you have community service hours, consider volunteering with them.
  • The Army National Guard also helps with disasters, and they were active in north St. Louis County in 1993. Talk to someone from the ANG who can tell you about their work. Are you able to “shadow” them for a day? If you joined the military, would you want to do this work, or go overseas?
  • If you had to flee your home because of rising water, what would you take with you? What would you leave behind reluctantly? What could easily be replaced?
  • What would your responsibility be to your family? Your neighbors? Your church? Strangers?


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