Teaching Steampunk

I attended a panel at Steamcon last fall dedicated to this topic. Having arrived late, I may have missed the meat of the conversation, but what I took in had already denigrated into one of those "what is steampunk?" conversations (and people keep riding my ass about the arrogance of coming up with a definition!). I was hoping to hear some teachers give practical advice for how to bring steampunk into the classroom, to capitalize on its popularity and cool factor. Later in the year, I received a Facebook message with a request for lesson plans or materials for teaching steampunk. Then I presented on steampunk at the GETCA convention in February (Greater Edmonton Teachers' Convention). While this won't be comprehensive, I hope it will at least spur further ideas and inspiration. If nothing else, you'll get some good links, and I've included some of my slides from the presentation.

First off, know your school and its inclinations to trying something new that may be perceived as edgy. If you think parents or administrators will balk at anything with the word "punk" in it, then just refer to it by any of the alternate terms Cory Gross enumerated in Steampunk Magazine: Victorian Science Fiction, Scientific Romance, Industrial Age Science Fiction, Industrial Fantasy, Voyages Extraordinaires and Gaslamp Fantasy." Above all, it's important that if you think of steampunk as a lifestyle, you check your propensity for proselytizing at the door -- telling kids they should adopt a steampunk way-of-life isn't so far afield from preaching a religion in school. Suggest cool DIY projects or environmentally friendly practices, but don't try to convert them per se.

From my own point-of-view, steampunk would be easiest to teach as a unit in English or Language Arts, whatever class involves reading stories. However, it strikes me that elementary teachers who are responsible for multiple curricula could do some hybrid teaching: read Kenneth Oppel's Skybreaker in English, talk about the actual history of the Edwardian period in Social Studies/History, examine the environmental science of high atmosphere travel in Science, and perhaps even make math problems related to some of the events - how much gold does Matt Cruse have left over if he drops X number of bars in his death-defying leap from the ghost ship?

I recommended a number of texts to the teachers at GETCA, based on reading levels. If you were doing a general unit on steampunk, you could have these on a "suggested reading" list.  

Without getting into books about classics, this about as young as you can take steampunk reading. Reeves' Larklight series is delightful, though it would be difficult to find opportunities for class units in these space-faring adventures.
Kenneth Oppel's Airborn series is my number one choice to recommend to teachers looking to get their students into steampunk: the first book won the Governor General's Award, and the series as a whole has won a number of other literary accolades. Oppel's blend of fiction and fact is flawless and fun - students will enjoy the highflying highjinks, while teachers will appreciate the opportunities to discuss history and science. Oh, and there's a lot of romance for the budding hormones as well. There are teacher's guides available online for Airborn and Skybreaker.
I told the assembled teachers at GETCA - who better to give the project of designing steampunk costumes and gadgets to than teenagers, with reams of disposable income and/or time on their hands? Challenge students to create steampunk graphics or scuptures for art class, or try a steampunk take on your school drama. Classic plays like Frankenstein, Faust or Shakespeare's works are prime for steampunking. Try adapting a steampunk short story into a short stage play: first person narratives like J. Daniel Sawyer's "Cold Duty" are just begging for a one-man play.
Again, know your audience, or in this case, know your students' parents. Gail Carriger's Soulless and its sequels are the remedy for Twilight, but Miss Tarabotti is a little bit naughty, so tread carefully. If your students are reading Gossip Girl, I have it on good authority from my sister, mother of two teen girls, that Soulless is less racy than Cicily von Ziegesar's books.
While Wrede's Thirteenth Child is dangerous territory on its own, with an America sans Native Americans, it might prove a great English/Social Studies combo to compare it to Orson Scott Card's Red Prophet: both imagine a frontier of fantasy, but Card trumps Wrede for historical attention. Compare Prophet with the real stories of Tecumseh and Tenskwata. If you're Canadian, try the same with Lisa Smedman's The Apparition Trail. The conversation on the treatment of First Nations/Native Americans is a good one to be having, and one that belongs in our schools.
I taught Boilerplate for the first time this past winter semester, in a course on argument and analysis. What better to test students' ability to think critically than Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett's carefully woven commentary on history? The key to the text is simply this: Boilerplate doesn't change history - he just mutely walks through it. It's Boilerplate's creator and his sister who provide the social commentary on racism, colonialism, warmongering, and progress. Check out my teacher's guide for Boilerplate at Abrams' website.
I remember taking the Great War in Social Studies in grade four - imagine comparing the historical alliances of the real events with the hyperrealized map of Europe in Scott Westerfeld's Leviathan. A book study of Leviathan with middle-schoolers and high-schoolers would prove very rewarding.

If an actual steampunk work isn't going to fly, try a classic - Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea is a great book for any reading level of grade four and up (just make sure you use the "Completely Restored and Annotated Version" from the Naval Institute Press, or at the very least, the Signet Classic version translated by Mendor T. Brunetti). If you anticipate students having difficulty with the reading, try the excellent Graphic Novel version by Gary Gianni, which is a close adaptation of Verne's text. Pair that up with either Oceanology: The True Account of the Voyage of the Nautilus with its excellent mix of fiction and fact (and those gorgeous "Ologies" elements of envelopes with letters inside, holographic images, charts, and maps) or the Deluxe Classics version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea illustrated by Paul Wright, which tells the story in a truncated manner for younger readers, along with illustrated annotations of sea life and a beautiful cutaway diagram of The Nautilus. You could show scenes from the 1954 Disney version (don't bother with any other version except perhaps the Nickelodeon cartoon) and ask students to compare - ask what changes were made in the film adaptation. If you're really ambitious and have access to a French program, have students read certain passages in French, or if they're teens, have them read Bruno's incredible (and grim) version of Leagues, simply titled Nemo. There are a number of Verne pastiches and adaptations, both novels and short stories that could be used in a unit on Verne to broaden the reading. You could teach on the Sepoy Rebellion/Indian Mutiny of 1857, discuss Colonialism, advancements in science: for science class, you could try basic experiments related to ideas in the book. Verne's agenda was to write great stories that would teach - using them as classroom elements seems ready-made. I say that from experience, having taught Leagues in an intro English College course this past year, with very positive responses from the students. For scholarly links on Leagues, check out the amazing database at Zvi Har'El's Jules Verne Collection. If you're not interested in reinventing the wheel, Bookrags also has a decent teacher's guide for 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

NOTE: As I was preparing this post, I realized that I could expand on this idea of teaching a classic along with its steampunk antecedents as my monthly themes this fall, which would have the added bonus of helping me prep for class lectures. Consequently, I'll be doing an entire month on H.G. Wells's Time Machine and War of the Worlds (September), Bram Stoker's Dracula (October), and Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (March) in the next year.


  1. For young readers (2nd grade?) I'd suggest John Rocco's Moonpowder.

  2. Moonpowder! Looks like it's awesome - love the cover art. Thanks for the suggestion, Jack!

  3. Dracula in October. hehehehehe....

  4. This is really helpful--I agree re: Carriger's books: Miss Tarabotti is a heroine a lot of girls would relate to: highly intelligent but insecure about her looks and her standing (but not enough to let it stop her from pursuing her interests). I find nothing half so redeeming in most YA "girl" fiction. It remains to be seen whether Myers' execrable oeuvre has done any lasting damage.

  5. Mamalayne - Ms. Tarabotti is a refreshing change from YA Chick Lit, to be sure, and yet clearly engaging - my niece loves those books. As for Myers, I only recently heard about the batshit birth scene from Breaking Dawn, and all I can say is...WTF?

  6. Nice list! I love tons of those books and got some great ideas of what to read next. I'm about to publish the first book in a series for 2nd-5th graders. Probably just in eBook format at first. Waiting on the remaining illustration now but keep an eye out for SteamPunk Elementary!

  7. Steam... Water turned into vapor at a certain boiling point. Steam engines could be incorporated into an alternative energy lesson, with cross curricular ties to history. Hot air balloons, another lesson involving air density which actually ties into Hadley cells. Hindenburg another cross curricular history tie.


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