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January 17, 2019

Learning Gateways: The Exxon Valdez Oil Spill | Case Study

Estimated Time  

30 minutes--several class periods(customizable)

Grade Level           

Secondary, but adaptable for other levels


This unit is comprised of many parts highlighting the Exxon Valdez story, including a photograph presentation with discussion questions, maps, personal stories, and Supreme Court documents.  Individual parts may be selected or combined for use in the classroom depending on classroom needs.  The entire unit is designed to teach students about the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, its impact on the environment and larger society.  Students learn that seemingly isolated incidents—in both time and place—affect larger areas for years beyond the event.  The Exxon Valdez disaster affected all of the United States, as victims came from every state, and continued to resonate in the United States, especially following a 2008 U.S. Supreme Court decision.   

This teaches students to:

  • Analyze the historical significance of events; and how historical events impact present circumstances;
  • Develop historical empathy by perceiving past events as they were experienced by people at the time;
  • Appreciate the role of the accidental in history;
  • Understand the relationship between geography and history, and its context for historic events;
  • Recognize the roles of popular culture, federal, state, and local governments; and how such roles and relationships demonstrate change and continuity over time; and
  • Appreciate and articulate the importance of the Rule of Law for protecting the environment.



  • Use the Exxon Valdez Power Point presentation as an introduction to, or entire lesson on the disaster, the clean up, the impact on wildlife, and the long-term effects on Alaska residents.
  • Ask students to create am “I Am” poem based on the personal stories that they read.  Ask them to put themselves in the positions of the people affected by the Exxon Valdez oil spill, or the recent Supreme Court decision.  
  • Ask students to create a “Found Poem,” using the personal stories that they read.  “Found Poetry” involves students selecting words right from a document, in this case the newspaper articles with personal stories, and creating a poem.  ONLY words from the document, or newspaper article, may be used.  
  • Ask students to create a Concept Web, individually, in small groups, or as a class, using the Exxon Shipping v. Baker case.  Put the 1989 oil spill in the middle of the web, and branch out by brainstorming possible effects, followed by more effects, followed by more effects, and so on, to illustrate the complexity of this particular incident and case.  Draw the web on notebook paper, chart paper, or the white board in front of the class, depending on your needs and preferences.  


  • Ask students what they learned about the far-reaching and long-term effects of seemingly isolated environmental disasters, such as an oil spill
  • Talk with students about the role of laws and government at all levels in this particular situation, and ask what can be learned for other situations.  What might be learned from this case? 

Additional Resources

Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council

Established by the State of Alaska and the federal government in response to the Exxon Valdez disaster, the Trustee Council is responsible for overseeing injury assessments and payments.  The Council’s site offers an extensive history of the oil spill, photos, clean-up efforts, and up to date information on the state of Prince William Sound and its ecosystems.

Office of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Damage Assessment and Restoration

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Marine Fisheries Office

The NOAA website chronicles the oil spill, clean up efforts, and the ecological impact—including habitat restoration and lingering oil, both historic and current.  Other useful resources include site pages detailing how weather affected the oil spill and clean up efforts.

Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker et al. 
Legal Information Institute, Cornell University

The Legal Information Institute website is one-stop shopping for the case syllabus, formal opinions, and dissenting opinions of the Supreme Court justices.  Everything is available for free download. 

Exxon Shipping Company v. Baker et al.
Oyez U.S. Supreme Court Media Project

The Oyez Project is a collection of U.S. Supreme Court Media.  The case is outlined, similar to the style of the Legal Information Institute, but also summarized for easy consumption by readers.  The Oyez site also offers court transcripts, and recorded oral arguments for free download. Omeara, Jan, ed.  Cries from the Heart: Alaskans Respond to the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill.  Wizard Works, 1989. This 90-page book is a printed collection of personal stories in the aftermath of the devastating oil spill.  Though out of print, used copies are available at various bookselling websites. 


I AM Poem

Directions:  Using the personal stories from the Exxon Valdez oil spill and resulting Exxon Shipping v. Baker Supreme Court case, create an I AM Poem.  Put yourself in the position of the people described in the stories and try to best describe their feelings and thoughts in the areas below.  When you are finished, read over your poem, make any needed changes, and decide where you want stanzas to begin and end. Rewrite the poem on the back. 

I am


(Two special characteristics of your historic person)

I wonder


(Something your historic person might be curious about)

I hear


(Something your historic person might hear)

I see


(Something your person might see)

I want


(Something your historic person might desire)

I am


(Repeat the first line of the poem)

I pretend


(Something your historic person might pretend to do or think)

I feel


(Something your historic person might feel)

I touch


(Something your historic person might touch)

I worry


(Something your historic person might be worried about)

I cry


(Something that might make your historic person sad)

I am


(Repeat the first line of the poem)

I understand


(Something your historic person might know is true)

I say


(Something your historic person might believe)

I dream


(Something your historic person might dream about)

I try


(Something your historic person might make an effort to do)

I hope


(Something your historic person might hope for)

I am


(Repeat the first line of the poem)

Found Poem Instructions

  1. Carefully read the personal stories you selected from the Anchorage Daily News website.  Look for 50–100 words that stand out in the article(s). Highlight or underline details, words and phrases that you find particularly powerful, moving, or interesting. Be sure to include passages or quotes that also reflect your personal beliefs and ideas. 
  2. On a separate sheet of paper, make a list of the details, words and phrases you underlined, keeping them in the order that you found them. Double space between lines so that the lines are easy to work with.
  3. Look back over your list and cut out everything that is dull, or unnecessary, or that just doesn’t seem right for a poem about an oil spill, the Exxon Valdez incident, or the ensuing legal issues. Try to cut your original list in half.
  4. As you look over the shortened list, think about the tone that the details and diction convey. The words should all relate to the topic, since you are creating a poem about the effects of the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Make sure that you have words that communicate your emotions or those of the person in the prose text.
  5. Copy the words and phrases onto a clean sheet of paper, or type. Begin creating your Found Poem using the words in your list, in order.  Space or arrange the words in any way you would like to so that they’re poem-like. Pay attention to line breaks, layout, and other elements that will emphasize important words or significant ideas in the poem.
    • Read aloud as you arrange the words! Test the possible line breaks by pausing slightly. If it sounds good, it’s probably right.
    • Arrange the words so that they make a rhythm you like. You can space words out so that they are all alone or allruntogether.
    • You can also put key words on lines by themselves.
    • You can shape the entire poem so that it’s wide or tall or shaped like an object—i.e. barrel of oil, drop of water, fish.
    • Emphasize words by playing with boldface and italics, different sizes of letters, and so forth.
  6. Make any minor changes necessary to create your poem. You can change punctuation and make little changes to the words to make them fit together (such as change the tenses, possessives, plurals, and capitalizations). If you absolutely need to add a word or two to make the poem flow more smoothly, to make sense, to make a point, you may add up to five words of your own. That’s five (5) and only five!

  7. Read back over your poem draft one more time and make any deletions or minor changes.
  8. Check the words and choose a title—is there a better title than “Found Poem?”
  9. At the bottom of the poem, tell where the words in the poem came from—cite your source(s)!



I Am Poem and Found Poetry Rubric


4 points

3 points

2 points

1 point


Focus on the topic of environmental law, Exxon Valdez oil spill

The entire poem focuses on the topic.  The topic stands out throughout the poem.

Most of the poem focuses on the topic.  The poem wanders off topic.

Some of the poem focuses on the topic. The poem often wanders off topic.

No attempt was made to relate the poem to the topic.


Use of details

The entire poem reflects close attention to the primary sources.

Most of the poem relates directly to the primary sources.

Some of the poem relates directly to the primary sources.

No connections were made in the poem to the primary sources.


Expression and Creativity

The poem is very expressive and creative.

The poem is mostly expressive and creative.

The poem is somewhat expressive and creative.

The poem is not expressive or creative.


Logical Progression and Sequence

The poem is presented in a logical sequence.

Most of the poem is in a logical sequence.  1-2 lines are out of order.

Some of the poem is in a logical sequence.  3-4 lines are out of order.

The poem is not presented in a logical sequence.  More than 5 lines are out of order.


Clear, consistent tone

The poem maintains a clear and consistent tone and effectively communicates the writer’s ideas.

The poem does not maintain a clear and consistent tone, but the writer’s ideas are still communicated effectively.

The poem maintains a clear and consistent tone, but the writer’s ideas are not effectively communicated.

The poem does not maintain a clear and consistent tone, and does not effectively communicate the writer’s ideas.


Overall use of primary sources

The poem makes excellent use of primary sources.

The poem makes good use of the primary sources, but could be improved.

The poem makes use of the primary sources, but needs improvement.

The poem does not make use of the primary sources.


Understanding of the key concepts

The poem demonstrates an excellent understanding of the key concepts.

The poem demonstrates a good understanding of key concepts.

The poem demonstrates some understanding of the key concepts, but needs improvement.

The poem does not demonstrate any understanding of the key concepts.






Total Points


The historical thinking skills outlined in the overview are adapted from History’s Habits of the Mind™, from the National Council for History Education, Inc.