Lesson Plan No. 2: Daniel MacMillan, 1917

What can we learn about the experience of rural New Brunswickers in wartime?

This Lesson Plan uses the experiences of one man to help students understand the way of life in rural New Brunswick in the early 20th century. Because it is based on diary excerpts from 1917, a critical year in the Great War, it also helps students understand the activities and attitudes of rural New Brunswickers during wartime.

The Lesson Plan is suitable for use in a variety of classes in the curriculum, including Grade 7, Empowerment and Grade 8, Atlantic Canada in the Global Community. It offers information about physical settings and human interaction with the environment as well as insights into the economic activity and the interdependence that shape community life. It may also be used in other classes at various levels, including those in geography, social studies, history, personal development and English.

The curriculum encourages teachers to utilize resource-based learning. Because this Lesson Plan is based on excerpts from a diary, it gives students the opportunity to work with a primary source. Students will learn that the diary is a form of personal evidence that provides valuable information about a society as well as an individual.

The Lesson Plan is based on one of the features on our website. Under Contested Territory on our home page, go to the feature entitled Life and Work in Stanley Parish at the Time of the Great War: www.lhtnb.ca/TH3/en_stanley.cfm. Teachers will note that this feature is based on a recent book, War on the Home Front: The Farm Diaries of Daniel MacMillan, 1914-1927 (Goose Lane Editions, 2006), but all the materials needed for the use of students are available in the related website feature and in this Lesson Plan.

The curriculum guide for the Grade 8 course, Atlantic Canada and the Global Community, seeks to have students gain an understanding of Atlantic Canada and apply that to a global context. This requires starting at home, which is where Daniel's diaries prove useful. The curriculum identifies four areas for students to look at: physical setting (human interaction with the environment and settlement patterns), culture (factors that shape and are shaped by culture, and the varied cultural, linguistic and ethnic groups in the region); economy (the role that basic economic principles play in students' daily lives and Atlantic Canadian society, the sectors of the economy and key economic issues); technology (effects on work experiences and standard of living, and the role of technology in communications, transportation, manufacturing and resource industries, and in recreational, home and community life); and interdependence with the rest of the country/world. Each of these four themes can be explored in the context of Daniel MacMillan's experience as a rural producer in the context of wartime New Brunswick.

The main goal is for students to gain an understanding of the environment, economy and culture of rural New Brunswick. They will also learn how the local and regional economy is linked to the outside world. Students will learn about the experience of New Brunswickers on the home front in wartime. They will also gain experience in utilizing a primary source document.

Through this lesson, students will demonstrate an understanding of how people interact with their physical environment, how people are organized into groups to achieve common and specific goals and how wartime conditions affected a community within rural Canada. Students will learn how people in the past worked hard to contribute to the needs of their society, often under stressful and difficult conditions without much recognition or reward.

Students will also be able to develop skills in creative thinking while learning how to read, understand, evaluate, organize and present information from an historical source.

Assessment: Students will be assessed on their participation during the group discussions and class reading, their completion of an activity report based on the diary, their preparation of a rough copy and then a final copy of their own diary entries or a paper on the war.

Suggested Activities:

  1. The preliminary parts of this lesson will vary depending on when the lesson is used. If used early in the school year, there will be more focus on the role of agriculture in New Brunswick and how the rural environment lends itself to the practice of farming and other forms of rural production. The teacher may suggest that students look at the food in their refrigerator and cupboards at home and report where the food has come from. A lot of produce consumed in New Brunswick comes from outside the province. New Brunswick also grows a lot of food, and the teacher can lead a discussion on what grows here. A good example would be potatoes, which could lead into a discussion on the McCain's factory. The teacher may also ask the class if any students come from rural families or have relatives who live on farms or in the country. The teacher may also ask the class what other kinds of economic activities besides raising crops are undertaken in the rural setting and how these contribute to supporting a rural way of life.
  2. At this point, the teacher may ask the class what they think life in the country is like. The teacher can make a brainstorming list on the blackboard and write down what the students suggest. The teacher can then ask if the students think things were always this way with farming. The teacher can then explain that the class is going to take some time to look at farming conditions in an earlier time and that they are going to use the diaries of Daniel MacMillan to explore this theme.
  3. The class will benefit from a discussion about diaries and what they are used for. The teacher may ask the class if any of them keep diaries and if so, what they write about. Students may discuss modern diaries such as blogs and perhaps display examples. After explaining what a blog is and why people use diaries, the teacher can introduce Daniel and his diary. The teacher can explain that his diaries have recently been published as a book. The teacher can ask a discussion question, such as, why would anybody be interested in Daniel's diaries? In the course of this discussion, the teacher can explain that Daniel's diaries are what historians call "primary" documents (unlike "secondary" documents that are written at a later time than the events described) and that they help us discover what life was like during the First World War from the perspective of those who remained at work in their home communities. If Grade 8 students are not familiar with the historical significance of the First World War, the teacher may also have to take some time to discuss this subject.
  4. Following this preparation, the class is ready to be introduced to Daniel MacMillan and his diary. Some brief biographical information is available in the introductory essay on the website. Where did he live? There is a map on the website showing the location of his farm near Williamsburg in Stanley Parish, York County - which is near the very centre of the province. If the class has a large wall map, students could explore it as part of this introduction. When was he born, and how old was Daniel when he wrote this diary? How much schooling did he have? The answers to these questions (available in the introductory essay on the website) will help give some idea of his background and experience. After this preliminary work, the teacher may hand out individual copies of the diary excerpts printed from the website (about 4 pages). If resources do not allow individual copies to be handed out, it will be fine to provide one copy per small group of three or four students. The teacher can either have the students read the diaries alone or read them together aloud, with the teacher and students each taking turns. In the context of a course such as Atlantic Canada and the Global Community, the teacher will highlight areas of the diaries that provide information illustrating the course themes of physical setting, culture, economy and interdependence.
  5. Once the reading of the diaries has been completed, the teacher can assign exercises in order to have the students extract information from the diaries. Three possible activities are also included below: an exercise for matching the entry to a date, a definitions exercise and some detailed questions. These also may be printed from the site or reshaped as individual documents for handouts. These exercises will allow students to spend more time with the material as well as to review information about Daniel's experience. Some of the simpler questions can be asked in order to check for comprehension, but there are also questions related to the nature of farm work and the wartime context that will require more discussion.
  6. One major suggested activity involves the students writing their own diary entry by taking on the identity of Daniel, one of his family members, a friend or a neighbour. Prior to explaining this personal diary assignment, the teacher will need to take some time to discuss with the class what it is that makes a good diary entry. This could be done by looking at Daniel's diary as well as brainstorming and collecting more ideas on the board. Before doing the diary entry, it would be useful to have the students write a diary entry on their own lives. Students can be given an assignment to write 100 words or so to discuss what they did during one day to bring to class the following day.
  7. Teachers may also lead students into a discussion emphasizing the specific context of the First World War and asking questions such as: What is conscription? Why were people for it, and why were others against it? What effect did the war have on the population of an area such as Stanley (on the adult men and women and on young people)? How did affect the lives of those who did not go to war but remained in the community to work on the home front? How did they contribute to the war effort? What kinds of sacrifices did they make? What was Daniel's attitude to the war, and how did he see his contribution to it? These questions can be used as a brainstorming activity for the main assignment to write a paper.
  8. Another major assignment will provide a larger research and writing activity. In this activity students will use both historical narrative as provided in Daniel's diary and other resources on the time period as well as their own imagination to come up with a piece of historical fiction (a term the teacher may need to clarify). The length of time given to the students to complete the activity will depend on how long the teacher expects these writing exercises to be: two or three pages may be all that is needed. However, it is suggested that students have class time in addition to assigned homework to complete the activity. Students should prepare rough copies that can be edited by peers and then looked over again by the teacher before being given back for final copy completion.
  9. Another option is for students to write a small paper (again two or three pages) about the impact of the First World War on New Brunswick. It should be based on the evidence in the diary and discuss how the war affected Daniel and at least two other people who appear in the diary. Students will prepare a rough copy which will be edited by their peers and then a final draft will be passed in to the teacher.

Exercise No. 1: Definitions

Sometimes when we are reading things that were written some time ago, we may not recognize all the words used. Even things written today may have words we don't know. Daniel MacMillan's diary may be an example of this. Reading improves our vocabulary. Try to see if you can find what these words mean by working in small groups and by using resources such as dictionaries.


Buckwheat: a cereal plant with seeds that can be used as a feed for animals or made into flour for human consumption, for making breads or pancakes or cereal.

Conscription: compulsory enrollment of persons for military service; the draft.

Commons: the House of Commons is the lower house in Parliament for Canada; members are elected by constituencies.

Ewe lambs: young female sheep.

Grippe: an old-fashioned word for a highly contagious viral infection of the respiratory tract that can be found in domestic animals and humans; symptoms include fever, chills, muscle pain, and exhaustion; also known as influenza (in French "grippe" means "the flu").

* Note that this word has two definitions in the dictionary; make sure students consider which one is most appropriate for the context
(1) as an adjective: used to described something extremely disturbing or distressing; (2) as a noun: an activity that involves removing weeds and breaking up clods of earth by dragging a steel rake through a field.

Senate: the upper house of the legislature of certain countries including Canada; in Canada members are appointed by the Crown, acting on the advice of the government.

Threshing: the process of separating the grains or seeds of a cereal plant, usually with a flail or machine; in another, more general usage, sometimes used in place of "thrashing" to mean a severe beating.

Exercise No. 2: Match the Entry to the Date

** To prepare for this exercise, the teacher should either (1) copy and cut out dates and diary entries and allow students to mix and match; or (2) provide each student with a sheet that contains two columns, one that lists the dates the other the diary entries in a random order.

Have you read Daniel MacMillan's diary? Do you remember some of these excerpts? Do you think you've got what it takes to match up dates with what he wrote? See how quickly you can match the diary entries to the dates.

March 16, 1917
I had a rather surprise trip to Stanley today. Arthur MacNutt came down this morning and told me James Douglass was loading a car of turnips and I had a few to take there; he was paying $1.00 per bbl., so I went to work and bagged up ten bbl. and took them in. I got back at 8 o'clock tonight.
March 22, 1917
Today marks the fifty-fourth time the earth has gone around the sun since I entered this sphere of existence, and really my physical and mental constitution is very good considering how long they have been in use.
June 1, 1917
I did not get to Sunday School this afternoon, I cut seed potatoes instead. I did so feeling I was performing a national service.
August 16, 1917
I had an offer of $2,500 for the old farm today, from James Turnbull. He offered to pay spot cash and allow me to stay on it for another year if I wished. I would like if possible to hang on until after the war, as I considerer it my duty to do so as a national service.
September 6, 1917
I had an offer today of $100 for ten ewe lambs, good price, but I would like to hang on to them if possible.
November 2, 1917
I am going to have a difficult time meeting my payments this season, nothing to sell. What I will do I am not decided. May arrange to cut a few logs. Lumber is a good price.
November 8, 1917
I finished my back field this morning. There seems to be a lull in operations on the Western front these days. There is likely to be some trouble in Quebec and other parts on the conscription law talked of. I see by today's papers that a coalition government at Ottawa is talked of.
December 11, 1917
Anyway if I am compelled to sell the farm I think the logs of more value standing than I could get out of them by cutting. I have a nice little flock of sheep I would like to hold on to, also, a young mare of good value, but I cannot hold on to logs, sheep and mare, and stay here much longer. Something has to be done, what it may be I cannot think.

Exercise No. 3: A Closer Look

Sometimes when we read things we may skip over details that are important to understanding what the writer is thinking. Sometimes the writer is very direct in conveying facts, and sometimes the meaning is a little bit hidden. See if you can answer the following questions:

  1. On March 16, 1917, Daniel went to Stanley to see James Douglass. What was the purpose of his trip?
  2. On March 17, 1917, Dan Jaffery asked Daniel if he could stay at his house. Why?
  3. On March 22, 1917, Daniel mentions an illness that kept him out of commission for a few days. What was it, and why did it happen at a bad time?
  4. Why did Daniel and others decide to help James Gullison in May 1917?
  5. What was the price of flour on May 10, 1917? Was that up or down from May 1?
  6. What crops did Daniel grow on his farm? Make a list, in order of importance.
  7. What price was Daniel offered for wool in June 1917, what price did he want, and what price did he accept?
  8. What was the new government policy under consideration in May 1917, and what did Daniel think about it?
  9. What were the difficulties Daniel had plowing his field in October 1917?
  10. What kinds of food was Daniel eating at his meals in November 1917?
  11. What was Daniel's attitude towards the war and his part in it?
  12. Why did Daniel think he might have to sell the farm?

Credits: Ben Conoley and Christina Lowe, with assistance from David Frank and Bill Parenteau.

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