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Female Pirates Weren’t Sexy (by Lesley Ito)

Wacky facts I’ve Learned from teaching cross-curricular lessons.
Female pirate Anne Bonny

(The information contained in this article was originally presented as a Pecha Kucha at the JALT National Conference in Tokyo, Japan in November 2011.)

It’s been six years since I opened BIG BOW English Lab, a private English school in Nagoya, Japan with a unique cross-curricular focus. Since most of my lessons are original ones, I’ve had to do a lot of research and reading on my own about subjects that interest children.

One thing I have learned is that “common knowledge” is always changing and some of the facts I learned as a child in school turned out to be no longer true. (Do you remember learning about the Brontosaurus in school? I do. Now they say paleontologists mistakenly put the skull of a Camarasaurus on the body of an Apatosaurus. The Brontosaurus never existed!) I am also reminded of the influence movies have on “common knowledge”. One of my friends used to be a high school history teacher in the USA. One day she asked her students what they knew about Watergate. One student raised his hand and said, “Well, Forrest Gump was staying in this hotel. . .” My friend interrupted her student with a loud sigh and said, “No, that’s what happened in a MOVIE!”

Movies are the reason we believe female pirates were sexy. Take a look at Penelope Cruz on the poster of the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie: She’s absolutely stunning with her long, flowing hair and sexy, off-the-shoulder dress. Real female pirates were not sexy. Real female pirates, like Anne Bonny and Mary Reed, had to disguise themselves as men because women weren’t supposed to be pirates. In fact, Anne Bonny’s nickname was “Toothless Annie”!

Movies are also the reason why we believe that ninjas wore black clothing from head to toe. If you really wanted to sneak around after dark, you shouldn’t wear black clothing. Black actually makes you stand out in the dark of night. The dark indigo dye, traditionally used by the common people of Japan to dye cotton cloth, would be a much better and more likely choice.

Elizabeth Taylor’s infamous flop, Cleopatra, is the reason everyone thinks that the most famous queen of Egypt wore bangs and garish blue eye shadow. Perhaps the hairdressers and make-up artists on the movie set used the ancient drawings of women and the goddess, Isis, found on the inside of the pyramids as a guide. However, the pyramids were built around 1000 B.C. Cleopatra lived from 69 B.C. to 30 B.C. (I’m pretty sure that fashion would probably change in the course of 900 years.) Marc Anthony had a coin made with Cleopatra’s image on it, so a more accurate depiction of “the most beautiful woman in the world” does exist and she does not have bangs.

Speaking of ancient Egypt, I learned long ago that when bodies were prepared for mummification, the brains were removed from the skull through the nose with a long hook. This always seemed quite difficult to do, but that’s what the history books said. Not to mention that my students loved to hear this fact and say, “EEEEEWWW!” very loudly. Last year I gave a presentation on teaching cross-curricular lessons in Gifu, Japan and afterward someone in the audience came up and told me that she had just taken a college class on ancient Egypt and scientists had recently concluded that instead of pulling the brain out through the nose in chunks, they probably used a whisk type instrument to liquefy the brain and have it pour out the nostrils. I was completely disgusted to hear this, but my students were more than pleased to learn this new tidbit of information.

Another thing I learned a long time ago was that the first airplane, flown by the Wright brothers, was called the “Kitty Hawk”. Actually, the first airplane was given the very boring and utilitarian name of “Wright Flyer 1” and was flown in the town of Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. I theorize the reason for the mix-up was because the Wright brothers did not want any newspaper reporters present, after a previous test flight of one of their gliders turned into a media circus.

I have advanced elementary classes read a chapter or two a week of a young adult novel and write a short book report. One of my students was reading a somewhat strange novel where one of the side gags was a neighbor who was raising lemmings for their pelts. At the end of the novel, the protagonist accidently leaves the neighbor’s gate open and the lemmings throw themselves in the sea to drown. My student had never heard of lemmings and asked me about them. I told him what I had learned in elementary school: that groups of lemmings sometimes commit mass suicide by leaping off cliffs. He said that sounded really stupid to him and I shared that I always thought something was really fishy about this “fact”. After a mere 30 minutes on the Internet, I found out that while lemmings may occasionally fall off cliffs during mass migrations, they do not commit mass suicide. This myth was started by the 1958 Academy award winning documentary, White Wilderness. Documentaries are supposed to be factual, but they filmed scenes of a turntable flinging lemmings off a fake cliff for dramatic effect.

Finally, I learned how something simple can change the course of history. Without the humble lemon, explorers could not have had successful expeditions to new lands. Magellan’s expedition might have made it around the world, but it started out with 270 crew members and ended with only 18! Many of those crew members died of scurvy, caused by a lack of vitamin C. James Cook was the first explorer to realize this and made sure that his crew always had fresh fruit. As a result, he was able to make many long and successful voyages.

In the Internet Age, our students are given access to so much information. Sometimes this information is not exactly true; sometimes the images we see have been manipulated or retouched. As teachers, we have a responsibility to teach our students to think for themselves and understand that what we know about the world is always changing.

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3 Comments

  1. Barbara says:

    I really enjoyed this at JALT, Lesley! Thank you so much for agreeing to share it here. It brought a smile to my face today, too :)

  2. Torn Halves says:

    Bravo. It sounds as if in a nicely subtle way your lessons raise the issue of what knowledge is (and it is odd that most schools try to impart knowledge without ever encouraging students to think about what it is). The ideas that all knowledge is provisional and fallible, and that every idea has a history, and that as learners we belong to a particular tradition – these are ideas that need to be highlighted somewhere in the curriculum.

    Just one question: How did James Cook keep those lemons fresh?

  3. Ah, you speak of a subject very dear to my heart – combining general knowledge with our English lessons.
    You make your point with delightful examples! Yes, we have to keep updated ourselves!
    What a great post!
    Naomi

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