WRITINGFIX Visit our "sister site" here:
WritingFix lessons--
traits and mentor texts

Welcome. My name is Corbett Harrison. I have been an educator since 1990, and a teacher-trainer and University adjunct professor since 1998. I specialize in teaching writing using differentiated instruction techniques. I also focus on critical thinking skills, especially during the pre-writing and revision stages of the writing process. I retired from the classroom in June of 2019, and I will continue to consult with schools, districts, and states who are more interested in developing quality writing plans, not buying from one-size-fits-all writing programs.

Beginning over the summer of 2019, I will be available once again to train teachers your school or district if you would like to hire a qualified and dynamic trainer. You can find general information about my workshops here.

If you would like to check my availability for a specific date or dates for the 2019-20 school year, please contact me at this e-mail address. My calendar is already fillling up with workshop engagements.


Write & WritingFix

       Because writing--when taught well--can be the most enjoyable part of your teaching day, we created this website to provide fun, adaptable ideas for teachers.

our "always write" homepage | our "Writing Lesson of the Month" | email me | writingfix | pinterest | facebook | teachers pay teachers | twitter | youtube | linked in  

Mr. Borilla was my fourth and fifth grade teacher. I became a teacher because of him.

Who was the teacher that inspired you to become one too? Does that question inspire you to tell a story? I believe every teacher should have at least one poem and one piece of prose that they've written and feel comfortable sharing with their students. I can think of no better topic for this purpose of writing then this: who was the teacher that inspired you to teach?

When I do demonstration lessons in elementary classrooms, I often begin by telling the students a "Mr. Borilla story." Michael Borilla was my fourth and fifth grade teacher at Bullard Elementary in Fresno, California. He was the first male teacher I had ever had, and he was also the first teacher whose classroom control methods scared me more than just a little. I find that students like to hear about their teachers' own teachers, especially the strict ones.

When Mr. Borilla yelled, he yelled loudly and he got in your face. To this day, I believe his disciplinarian voice could have cut glass. Truth be told, in fourth grade, I needed someone to teach me respect, and Mr. Borilla was there at an ideal time in my development.

And the most important fact about him is this: he was one of the best teachers I've ever had. He did things for me that no teacher had ever done, and that no teacher has been able to do since. I became a teacher because of Mr. Borilla.

I had searched for Mr. Borilla's contact information since beginning my website. Not knowing what became of him, I wanted to check in with him, let him know what a difference he'd made to a kid who needed a male role model back in the 1970's. Recently, I was contacted by his granddaughter who told me he had passed away in 2005. I was saddened that he'd never heard directly from me about his positive influence on my life, and the continued development of this page is my attempt to let the world know about a great man, since he can't hear from me directly.

In her note to me, which she wrote after discovering this page, his granddaughter wrote, "I'm certain that his teaching years, besides his years with his grandchildren, were his fondest years of his life. His passion was to motivate kids with potential to be the best they can possibly be. I'll never forget the look on his face when I told him how much he influenced me, as his grand-daughter. He completely lit up. I'm sure he is thrilled and honored that he had such a positive impact on you and been extremely proud of you and your success."

Having told my stories about him countless times to both teachers and students, I have become aware that every one of us has a story about that teacher who changed us, who affected our lives and probably doesn't even know it. I have set up this page at my website to celebrate the stories we all have about those teachers from our past.

On this page, I share my three favorite stories about Mr. Borilla. I have told and re-told these stories so often over the years that I can no longer be sure which parts of the stories are completely true, and which parts I have dramatized in my attempts to be a better story-teller. True or slightly-fabricated, these stories do what they're supposed to do: they encourage the children I work with to want to become story-tellers too. When I tell these tales, I know Mr. Borilla is still having a positive effect on students. Somewhere, I know Mr. Borilla is proud of the influence he had on me.

Three Stories about Mr. Borilla I Share with my Students
How Mr. Borilla Helped me Find my Voice
My most often told Borilla story

He got stuck with me twice.

I was a manipulative little kid when I entered his fourth grade classroom, one who thought I could twist the trust of adults in my life around my sticky fingers. Mike Borilla was the first teacher I had who didn't put up with it, and I fought him for quite some time. He won...of course...but those fights taught me quite a bit about myself.

I needed a person like Mr. Borilla in my life right about the time we ended up together. He could have certainly survived without me as his student, I'm sure, but fate put us together for two straight years.

In fourth grade, I was a devourer of Mad Magazine. I was also a budding class clown. I am sure the two had something to do with each other. Right from the start, Mr. Borilla let me know that he would not be putting up with any of my attempts to be funny on his time. The jokes I recited and the cracks he heard me make were quickly stifled. Mr. Borilla had learned to stifle class clowns long before I had been born.

Many years after I had left fourth grade, my older brother Bret--who had also been a student of Mr. Borilla--asked me, "Did Mr. Borilla ever give you a shaking?" Unsure of what that meant, I asked for clarification. "You know," Bret said, "where he'd grab your shoulders when he was mad at you and just shake you like crazy." Apparently, when my brother had been his student, this had been a common practice in some classrooms at Bullard Elementary.

Apparently, sometime between my brother's year as his student and my year, there had been some sort of teacher inservice, and shakings became a thing of the past.

When I knew Mr. Borilla, he was famous for his shoutings, not shakings. To show he was angry with one of your--let's say--practical jokes or sarcastic comments, Mr. Borilla would place his face just inches from yours and then he'd let the decibels fly. Loud questions, he'd always just shout a string of loud questions. What were you thinking? Do you think that was funny? Would your mother like it if I called her and told her you acted like this? There was no time to answer between his interrogative explosions. You had to just sit there and endure the volume, knowing everyone else was watching the classroom spectacle.

I got shouted at a lot during the first few weeks of fourth grade, which squelched my desire to become the clown in Mr. Borilla's class. I did learn that I could tolerate a shouting longer by tuning him out, by distracting myself with the features of his face. To not hear him, I would start by counting his deep nose pores as soon as he started barking out questions. I would then move to his ears, which had an alarming amount of steel-wool hair growing from them. His salt-and-pepper hair was always perfectly parted on the left side, and despite his head's erratic movements while shouting at me, he never lost that part. Mr. Borilla was a huge, towering man, and to shout at me properly while sitting at my desk, he had to lean over and take a position that must have hurt his back. That back pain probably fueled his fire.

(Click here to read this entire story.)

The Short Adventure Contest
This story inspired an online lesson at WritingFix

Between fourth and fifth grade--my two years with Mr. Borilla as a teacher-- there came a marvelous summer. My best friends all had swimming pools. I learned to body surf with my older brother. And a movie came out that summer that blew my mind. I think I saw it ten times, at least. It was called Raiders of the Lost Ark. None of us had ever seen a movie like this before.

When summer came to an end, we asked Mr. Borilla if he had seen the film, and he admitted that he had. He also admitted he didn't care much for it.

What? We were shocked. Why Not?

Mr. Borilla said the movie was too long. He didn't want to talk about special effects. He didn't want to talk about amazing characters. To him, it was simply longer than it needed to be. Adventure movies of Mr. Borilla's youth had apparently been much shorter. He called them serials.

I had developed a pretty good rapport with Mr. Borilla by then, so I felt comfortable razzing him when I could tell he was in a mood that allowed for playful razzing. At recess, I remember approaching him one day, saying, "Oh, what do you know? You didn't even like Raiders of the Lost Ark."

"It's not that hard to make an adventure movie, Corbett," Borilla replied. "I mean, what's the definition of an adventure? Something happens. Then something happens. Then something happens. Then something happens. It's not rocket science."

Later that week, perhaps inspired by our conversation, Mr. Borilla announced he was sponsoring a writing contest just for his class. He was calling it The World's Shortest Adventure Story Contest. He obviously expected to prove a point. I was determined to prove my own.

For a week, we talked about adventure story basics. We brainstormed good ideas. He gave the "Something happens, then something happens..." speech a few more times, and we were off and writing.

On the day the stories were due, this is the complete story that I turned in:

The World's Shortest Adventure
by Corbett

____Something happened. Something happened. Something happened. Something happened. Something happened. Something happened. Something happened. And something happened.

The next day, Mr. Borilla handed it back with an appreciative smile. "It's good. Nice and short, but you didn't use enough transition words." In fairness, we had been studying transitional words and phrases, so I re-wrote it once more...just to see if I could get a bigger smile out of my teacher.

(Click here to read this entire story.)

Borilla's Rosey-Cheeked Ghost Lesson
a new Mr. Borilla story I am working on

Thinking back, I suspect Mr. Borilla had shown up late to a faculty meeting the year I became one of his fifth graders. I suspect someone had volunteered him—in his absence—to be in charge of Bullard Elementary’s Fall Play, because why else would you do that? In fourth grade, my chorus teacher was put in charge of this extra duty expectation at our school, and I saw first-hand what a chore it had been for her; I am sure she went a bit grayer that fall. When she put on “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” I had hoped to be Linus, because he had some good lines, but Matt Shipley got the part because he actually looked like Charlie Brown’s blanket-carrying companion. So I played a member of the chorus who had no name and accepted my first lesson in humility.

Mr. Borilla chose to focus on Halloween for his fall play. He chose that well-known, high-quality piece of drama “The Rosy Cheeked Ghost.” When he personally asked me to audition and told me about the play—it was the story of a school that taught ghosts to be scary, but one ghost had these amiable rosy cheeks—I was sure he was asking me to try-out because he wanted me to star in his production. Had he known I was still bitter about the Linus thing from the year before? We had gotten to know each other pretty well during my fourth grade year, and now that he was my fifth grade teacher, was he helping me overcome the previous year’s drama debacle?

I gave up a day of lunchtime kickball and tried out for Borilla’s play. I read a Dr. Seuss poem I had memorized for a poetry festival, and I nailed that audition. I was horrified to find out that Mr. Borilla gave the part of the Rosy-Cheeked ghost to Fred Dau the next day. I had been cast as the professor who ran the school for ghosts, and I was so angry, I almost quit the play before the first rehearsal even began. I had less than fifteen lines. My time could be better spent playing kickball.

Mr. Borilla had indeed known me, and he knew I was disappointed by his casting. Before I had an opportunity to complain to anyone he took me aside and explained his decision. “The Rosy-Cheeked Ghost is a bigger part, but he’s not that funny. The professor is supposed to be really funny, Corbett, and I know you can do funny. I need you to do funny.”

Turns out I could do funny. At Borilla’s suggestion, I turned the character into a mad scientist type, and I perfected an evil laugh and the crazy rubbing of my hands together, which I still get asked to do by friends today. After the play, students I didn’t know came up to me for weeks and told me I was the character they liked most in the play. I suspect Fred Dau received fewer bits of "stranger praise"; he was a stunning ghost, but no one except his family and friends knew it was Fred beneath the sheet that completely concealed him.

To this day, I still carry the lesson of Bullard Elementary’s fifth grade fall play with me. I know that having the biggest role is not that important. I know that making the most of what you’re given and trusted to do—no matter how big or small—is how one becomes remembered and respected. I’ve taught that lesson to my own students, while directing plays myself and while teaching them about life and writing. Thanks again, Mr. Borilla.

And just for the record, I volunteered to direct those plays. I hardly ever come late to faculty meetings.

Back to the top of the page

Five Stories about Former Teachers by Great People Who Became Teachers

Dr. Giddings
written by Nevada teacher Temoca Dixon

Jeesh, she was nuts! Western Traditions was my first class back into the swing of college and I got the nutty professor for a semester. Dr. Giddings hurled ideas at us, she in and out of cramped college desks flapping her wings at the grand ideas of the universe, and she asked us, “Why?” for heaven’s sake.

I plugged along and loved brimming over with intellectual knowledge that is usually reserved for lunch at the square in San Francisco. The first writing assignment was a response to Gilgamesh. I wrote insightfully and offered new ideas I was sure would become standard form in Literature classes across America. I turned in my paper confident I belonged among the great thinkers in higher level education.

Red loops, red slashes, red question marks, red running all throughout my paper as she handed it back to me. Dr. Giddings didn’t even give me a grade. She wrote, ‘See me after class.’ in fire-engine red. I stumbled back to my seat and told my Dad, who had just gotten his paper back, “I’m not cut out for college. I don’t belong here.”

I wanted to be a good student but was feeling I met with Dr. Giddings and she gave me the usual advice, go to the writing center, get a tutor, look for a book on MLA writing…etc. I teetered, and then finally asked if she would have time to meet with me to explain her expectations. We met at Starbucks on a Saturday afternoon and Dr. Giddings inspired me to learn, experience everything and more.

My final paper came back scribbled on in red.

Temoca, after I pull myself together I must tell you honestly, this is a catharsis. In all my years of teaching I can tell you, you have a gift for writing. Write a book. Help others. Never stop learning.

Thank you, Dr. Janet Giddings. You have inspired me. And I don’t know how you did it, but you spoke my dreams out loud when I did not have the courage to do so myself. I can only hope I will one day do as much for someone else.

My Mentor
written by Nevada teacher Jenny Hoy

I was lucky. He wasn’t just my teacher, he was also my tennis coach, and in most respects, my mentor. Even today, I call him or email him with simple questions of good teaching , how to guide a wayward student back onto the path of academia, or how to deal with complexities of day-to-day life. And, he always does it with a story.

One of my first memories of him was in a large college lecture hall. The room was large with stark white walls. I was sitting near the front with a clear view of the green chalkboard, with my legs swinging back and forth, because they didn’t touch the floor. The auditorium was filled with students listening to his booming voice tell the story of how the world stopped on November 22, 1963. He was professor of the year, and his class was full. Students were furiously taking notes, yet were not afraid to ask questions. Although I sat silently, I would look at my scribbles and know they were meaningless compared to his words. I think this was the moment I fell in love with stories. He made a very complicated, scary moment so clear through the simple act of telling a story.

It should be no surprise to anyone who has ever met me that I was never the tallest of students and it bothered me a great deal for a very long time. I mentioned this once to him in passing and he asked me what I was going to do about it. I replied with frustration that I couldn’t do anything about it; it was just the way I am. He said, “Exactly! You can’t change it, so don’t worry about it. However, your strength of character should be the largest presence in any room you enter. If you can achieve this, your physical height will never be an issue.” As difficult as this task sounds, it is a thousand times more difficult to achieve. I can’t say that I’ve been perfect, but it is something to which I aspire. He does it daily, seemingly without effort; but I know from my own experiences, it requires a level of faith in myself that is so overwhelming; yet this ideal gives me the courage each day to stand up for what I know is right. This mind set allows me to live a life free from many of the stresses that might result from “convenient decisions” rather than the sometimes more difficult paths I chose.

I remember winning my first tennis tournament and jumping up and down with joy, until I saw him frowning at me. I danced across the court to ask him what the problem was, after all I did win! He said that part of sportsmanship is to lose with grace, but to also win with humility. My behavior did not reflect his philosophy and he would prefer if I would show some respect to my opponent and not gloat! Many years later, ever the historian, he wrote a book about the history of sports in America. He dedicated it to his three sports-loving granddaughters, with this explanation in his acknowledgments: May they learn the importance of competing hard within the rules, and understand that the inevitable setbacks they will encounter—in sports and beyond—must be a prelude to trying harder and preparing for the next challenge. His use of sports as a metaphor for life is never-ending. What he taught me on the tennis courts has carried into my daily life. Anyone who knows me, knows I’m relentless and don’t give up until the last point is played. I’m competitive, always with a drive to win; but only within the rules. Although, I have been known to make a few “close” line calls! And when I lose, count on me being right back in the game the next day ready to find a way to win.

Over the years, he’s been called Mr. Davies, Coach Davies, Professor Davies, Dr. Davies, Dean Davies, Vice President Davies, and for a short while, on a Colorado campus, President Davies. To a few special students, he is simply known as Doc; but, to me, he’s always been just Dad.

Goodbye, Girl
a poem about Anita, a teaching colleague, by Terry Stelle

You could silence a room
just by crossing your arms,
the look in your eye
showed the world your charm.

Your class read the paper
and learned through the news,
they memorized poetry
all by Langston Hughes

Anita, we’ll miss you
when you move to Chicago.
If it’s really so great there
why can’t we just all go?

Your memory will linger
long after you vacate,
(We’ll all still have Pat
that we have to placate.)

We’ll remember your kind words
if we start to stutter,
your vision of everything
flowin’ like butter.

You can Share Too!

These narratives were originally posted on-line at the blog I set-up as part of my Mr. Borilla Project. If you are inspired by any of the stories on this page and want to "publish" a story you can show your students, feel free to participate:

  • Post your story or short memoir about a former teacher by clicking here.
  • Post a poem about a former teacher by clicking here.
  • Did you have Mr. Borilla too? Or did you attend Bullard Elementary? Post a memory about that fine school by clicking here.

Warmth from Shade
written by Nevada teacher Marianne Kelly Smith-Nott

He no longer wanders the dimly lit, crowded halls. He no longer warmly greets new students with that genuine, gleaming-white, toothy smile…welcoming the lost to “come on in.” That same bright smile appeared in his sparkling, jet-black eyes…seeming to open the doors to the cold, shadowy hall…making anyone feel safe, wanted, and truly cared for as they enter their new surroundings at Traner Middle School, I remember that terrified feeling as I peered out the steamed up windows of the overcrowded, yellow school bus.

WE had all grown up together, attended the same school…even if we didn’t always have the same teachers. WE…the soon to be 6th graders from Sun Valley Elementary in the mid 70’s…all heard the gruesome stories about gang fights, drugs, having to “dress out” and shower for P.E. in front of others, and being assaulted in the hallway bathrooms without anyone knowing by “those black kids.“ WE were the “outsiders from Scum Valley” being bussed to the “Hood” where the “Crips” and the “Bloods” were prevalent. WE were the first group of 6th graders to venture into middle school…WE were the new kids on the block, taking that first timid step off of the noise-filled bus onto the silent and still black asphalt walkway that led up to those doors of doom.

Coach Shade was as “cool” as his name. You knew from the day he welcomed you in…that you could trust him with anything, be yourself, and share anything dark in your life. He stood up for you when others of color treated you badly and called you names just because you were white. I remember when I performed a sorry dance in a long dress for the talent show…I looked across the gym…no parents…just kids giggling a bit and pointing…but he smiled and clapped…even though I had no rhythm to dance to “Brick House.”

I look back, reminiscing about the comfort he gave, joking with him, laughing with him about being twins (we shared the same birthday, June 3rd…however he was black and I was white), crying on his shoulder when others were picking on me or when my “first love” dumped me just before the Sweetheart’s Valentine dance. Or what about just being a nerdy, awkward, GT kid with ADHD that alienated herself from just about every sport or new thing I tried?

Did I mention that he was NEVER my teacher in PE or any other class? He taught me so much about humor in life (especially when it seems like death to a preteen), what is important (those whose lives you touch), and what isn’t (what others think of you)…and acceptance. He helped me to accept myself during a very awkward time in my life, I was a late bloomer in all ways, my parents were divorcing, and I was leaving the comforts of my neighborhood to be bussed into a neighborhood that my parents had moved from to provide me a better education and life. Did I tell you that he now lives (and has for many years) in my neighborhood?

The best part is…my most recent memory…a way he touched my life, was to give me a gift that I once gave him. He had saved a poem/letter that I had written to him for our “last twin birthday” at the end of my 8th grade year. The paper had aged, yellowed with time…the ink not quite as vibrant as it once had been. He had saved it for all of years! I couldn’t believe it! He gave it to me for my 40th birthday in front of my dad, my husband, and my family.

I’m fortunate as I occasionally see him now…at least once a year, usually in the spring at Gepford Ballpark …walking around with that same gleaming-white, toothy smile, greeting every one of his former students, their aging parents, their children, and in some cases their grandchildren, as he did that very first day of school. “Wow…” I thought to my self…”I always thought it was just for me!”

Some of us are still lost—others still finding our way…his weathered yet still sparkling, jet-black eyes…making us feel safe, wanted, and truly cared for…still holding that door open toward our destiny. And…if I were to enter the halls of Traner Middle School as I once did so long ago, he would always be a permanent fixture to me.

A Tribute to Mr. Stanley
written by Nevada teacher Lisa Larson

Mr. Stanley always played his guitar on Fridays after lunch. Always. Our fifth grade class would gather in a circle on the floor in front of him and he would strum his guitar and sing goofy songs about our lessons that week. He sang about the Dewey Decimal System and the solar system, fractions and freedom and reading and responsibility – it was the coolest thing that had ever happened to me at school! So the day that I came in from lunch and saw the guitar still in its case and Mr. Stanley perched behind his desk, I was livid.

What had we done to deserve this? Who had misbehaved and gotten our music taken away? Who had disrespected Mr. Stanley and made him so mad that he wouldn’t sing for us today?

I was going to kill that person.

After everyone had trickled in from recess and came to the same realization that I had, we quickly sat in our desks, folded our hands in front of us and assumed innocent faces. There had to be some way to get the guitar and singing and fun back.

Mr. Stanley slowly rose from behind his desk, his arm outstretched to the classroom. The brown eye clutched between his gnarled fingers stared balefully at us. We all sat in stunned silence. This might be as cool as the guitar.

I don’t think anyone was prepared for the shininess, the loneliness, the utter grossness of the eye. Two weeks of reading, studying diagrams and drawing our own illustrations had not prepared us for the dripping orb watching us now.

His gentle voice broke the silence as he walked between our desks, giving us a close-up look at the eye. After every student had seen it, he walked to the table at the front of the room and beckoned us forward.

The first slice into the juicy globe shocked me and made my lunch rocket around inside my stomach, but when he flayed the side open and I could see the diagram from the textbook and my own illustration lying on the table in front of me, I was hooked. The absence of the guitar didn’t matter anymore.

In one afternoon, Mr. Stanley had taken science from the flat, one-dimensional world where it usually lived and made it come alive. In that moment, I was certain that we were the coolest fifth grade class in the history of education and that I was the luckiest kid on the planet for getting to be a part of something so incredible.

It has been thirty years since that day in Mr. Stanley’s class, but I remember it like it was yesterday. As a teacher now, I appreciate the effort that he put forth to make learning as fun and memorable as possible whenever he could.

Back to the top of the page