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Lesson Plan French Canadian Immigrants in New England

What evidence do we have that French Canadian immigrants settled in New England? Who were these people? Why did they come to the region in such large numbers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries? What was life like for them? What values did they bring with them that helped shape the region?

Using American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 and Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers to answer these questions, students reach an understanding of the impact that French Canadians have had in New England.


Students will be able to:

  • identify the main characteristics of French Canadian immigrants;
  • gain insight into the impact that French Canadian customs, language, religion, and values have had in shaping New England;
  • enhance French language skills through oral discussions and short written assignments.

Time Required

Two weeks

Lesson Preparation



Lesson Procedure

The lesson focuses primarily on gaining insight into French Canadian immigrants and their contributions by juxtaposing information from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 with that of information from Chronicling America, looking for areas of commonality and contradiction.

Students work in pairs at the computers. Because some of the documents are long, limit the topics assigned to research to ten and make each group responsible for only two or three of them. This allows students to skim through lengthy passages.

Half of the class searches through the American Life Histories; the other half looks for information on the same topics in Chronicling America.

Students post their findings on a bulletin board in the classroom to facilitate group discussion.

The bulletin board becomes a whole class graphics organizer for this lesson.


Activity One

Brainstorming: Elicit students' prior knowledge of French Canadian immigrants. Initially the source of this knowledge can come from discussing the last names of students in the class. Are there any students with French last names? Do you know anyone with a French last name? Are there any places in the area with French last names (street names, buildings, towns, rivers, etc.)?

Activity Two

Students should come up with their own search terms and should note what worked and what did not as well as noting what they find.

  • Discuss how to determine key words for searching;
  • Look at options for searching the Library's online collections;
  • Review note-taking using key words or phrases.

Assign each pair of students two or three topics on which to concentrate their searches. Direct students to make a chart comparing the information found in each collection.

Possible topics include: Schools/Education, Organizations/Publications, Pastimes/Customs, Work, Reputation/Temperament, Prejudice/Difficulties, Reason for immigrating, Family, Religion, and Language.

Allow for brainstorming within pairs to insure that all students have a good idea about how to find information relevant to their topics.

Introduce the American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 collection.

Model studying one interview, such as Henri Lemay, to isolate items pertaining to the topics assigned. This interview was chosen because it is short and because it illustrates that some of the life histories may not provide information on all the topics. This activity can be done online or hard copies of the interview can be provided so that students can write on them. Groups can use this activity to begin taking notes for their assignment.

Activity Three

Students are encouraged to investigate many interviews and newspapers during the search process. Students begin their Library of Congress online collections search.

Notes are posted on a large bulletin board in the classroom or online.

Activity Four

Groups read the notes they posted to class; class takes notes; discussion ensues. Complete class discussion.

Discuss as a class:

  • In the portrait of French Canadians which emerges from the American Life Histories (self-portrayals) and the newspapers (journalists' reports), do areas of commonality emerge?
  • Do contradictions come to light?
  • Do patterns emerge (is there anything that you see over and over again)?
  • Are there any conclusions to be drawn from these commonalities, contradictions, and/or patterns?

Activity Five

Analyze depression era photographs.

  • Model analyzing one photograph, recording thoughts on the Primary Source Analysis Tool. Before beginning, select questions from the teacher's guide Analyzing Photographs and Prints to focus and prompt analysis and discussion.
  • Student partners will select and print one photograph from the Resources, analyze it and find elements characteristic of the French Canadian immigrant experience.

French Addendum

Teachers of French who wish to include use of language skills in their objectives can make the following adjustments to our procedure:

  1. All groups can be required to keep a list of French words and expressions that appear in nearly all of the American Life Histories. During the discussion stage of the lesson, students can be asked to use this vocabulary to make statements relevant to the assignment. As an alternative, students can be asked to use the vocabulary in a similar assignment in written form.
  2. After the search process is completed, the class can brainstorm to compile a list of vocabulary words and expressions that will facilitate discussions of French Canadian immigrants' experience in French.
  3. The photo analysis can be done in French. The questions can be modified to reflect the level of the class. French translation of a photo study guide.
  4. The evaluations for the unit can be done in French.

Lesson Evaluation

Choose one of the following:

  1. Graphically depict the influence of French Canadian immigrants in our region.
  2. Assume the role of foreman in a textile mill at the turn of the century. Using the characteristics of the immigrants discussed in class, persuade your boss to hire French Canadians.
  3. Assume the role of a French Canadian immigrant. Produce a journal entry or write a letter to a relative in Canada.
  4. Write an article for a gazette published in "Little Canada" at the turn of the century.


  • Imagine the questions asked to produce the American Life Histories. Use them to interview a person of French Canadian descent or an immigrant of any nationality in the community.
  • Research the strong resistance to assimilation on the part of French Canadian immigrants. What do you see as the ultimate reason for the demise of the "survivance" philosophy?
  • Compare/contrast the experiences of an immigrant in New England today with those of a French Canadian immigrant in the late 19th century.
  • Research the peculiar conflict between French Canadian and Irish immigrants (both predominately Catholics) in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Linda Hamel and Linda Hedrick