Episode 2: Learning to Live Through a Dead Language

  • Middle School
Episode 2: Learning to Live Through a Dead Language


Our second episode of Bear Conversations features Middle School Latin and Logic teacher Marianne Scrivner. She talks about how the classical model of education offers an integrated approach to learning that connects subject areas and develops students who think critically about what they are learning and communicating. Marianne expounds on the purpose of language and challenging her students to capture the ideas expressed by an author’s use of language.

About Marianne Scrivner

Marianne with Patrick

Marianne Scrivner first started teaching at The Bear Creek School in 2017 as a long-term substitute and became a full-time member of the Middle School faculty in 2018. She has worked in education in various forms since 1999 and has a love for helping students make connections between subject areas. Her four children attend Bear Creek. When not at school, you might find Mrs. Scrivner playing piano, gardening, reading at a local coffee shop, or out adventuring with her family.


During this conversation Patrick and Marianne mention some books, podcasts, hikes, and more that you may be interested in investigating further.

Episode Transcript

Patrick: Welcome to Bear Conversations, a podcast of The Bear Creek School in Redmond, Washington. I'm Patrick Carruth, Bear Creek's President and Headmaster, for nearly 15 years. In today's episode, I'm talking with Middle School Latin and logic teacher Marianne Scrivner about her history with Bear Creek and why the interconnection of subjects matters in a Christian liberal arts education.

Marianne, thanks for taking the time today to be with me.

Marianne: My pleasure.

Patrick: You've been teaching a while. I think you have been teaching in various capacities since, like 1999. Is that right?

Marianne: In 1998, I started SPU, Seattle Pacific University, and they hired math tutors out of the calculus class. And so, I started working as a math tutor in the math lab at Seattle Pacific University, which started me.

Patrick: So, we got math, Latin, and logic.

Marianne: Yeah, I was originally a math, definitely math/science gal. So that I started a private tutoring practice that was mostly math and science, some English, and dabbling in other things, and then expanded into homeschooling, and then classroom teaching here. This will be my fifth school year that I'll be a teacher.

Patrick: What drew you to Bear Creek?

Marianne: I have been peripheral to Bear Creek for a very long time. Actually, one of my high school friends was the first-ever graduate of The Bear Creek School. My sisters attended here when they were in Middle School. And then I go to church with a lot of other faculty. And so, all those connections and relationships, I ended up subbing and just falling in love with Middle School and the people there. Then I was like, "I should do this."

Patrick: I started teaching many, many years ago in the middle school. I taught eighth grade and had a very wise friend, Barbara Brownlee, was her name. And she said that "Middle school teachers are not developed they're born." What do you think about that?

Marianne: I think that's probably true. I remember wanting to be a teacher even when I was in high school and thinking, but not middle school because I had just survived middle school myself, and I remember the students being challenging even from my perspective as a student. But now I just love it. I love the curiosity and the openness and the amount of... like they can't avoid having to laugh at themselves a little bit because like, their voices are cracking and, you know, puberty is just wreaking havoc on their sense of self. So, it's really a special time, and I think because I have middle schoolers and have that parent perspective on the developmental stuff as well that I just really think it's precious.

Patrick: So you have four children. What are their ages?

Marianne: Sixteen, fourteen, twelve, and we're just weeks away from ten.

Patrick: Wow, so you're all kind of right in that in that middle space.

Do you have a favorite story or something that is your favorite thing about Middle School students? You mentioned their curiosity, but is there something that sticks in your mind as a favorite?

Marianne: I find Middle School students are really excited to try to derail class, you know, come up with the witty comment or the question that they think pulls us off the lesson in some way. And I can get on a good rabbit trail, but I love when they think they've asked that question and they get me talking, but they don't realize if they get me talking it's because it's related to the subject matter. I'm making this roundabout, but then they're interested, and they listen on a different level when it was a student-driven question and we've kind of departed from necessarily the normal lesson and they're really engaged and then we can tie it back. I just love those moments where they realize like life and their teachers as a human being all have connected together and stick the landing for the lesson.

Patrick: That's a really good dialectical trick that you play on them. Just let them ask the question, now they're interested, and you kind of walk around the back side and bring them back to the subject.

How does one go from math to Latin to logic? Is there some connection there?

Marianne: I think knowledge is connected. So, I went to a classical college myself after my time at SPU, which was more math and science focused, to focus in on the Great Conversation and history.

Patrick: Where'd you go?

Marianne: It's a tiny college called Guttenberg College in Eugene, Oregon. It's a Great Books school. And so, for me, all of the subject area really is interconnected, and I love the connection, for me, between math and language is really that math is a language, one, and I've always taught it and tutored it that way—trying to find the right way to translate math concepts to an individual's brain. But we get to use all of that formulaic stuff with classical languages especially. Because I'm having them diagram and really evaluate the grammar and come up with this defense of why this sentence translates to this other language.

And so I think there's a lot of that math brain happening in classical language and a lot of logic also in both of those fields. They've got to be thinking. Our Latin curriculum, Lingua Latina, is immersive. The whole book is Latin.

Patrick: Tell me what that means, in Latin.

Marianne: Immersive means you're just immersed in the language. So, our Latin curriculum has no English. Our Latin book has no English in it at all. They've got to dive in from page one reading Latin and making sense of it. And to do that they're using deduction. They're using induction. These logic tools to figure out, "what are the clues that have been left for me?" with illustration or with sentence structure and parallels in order to figure out what words mean. So, I like to push them on their logic and connect. My favorite thing is just to connect different subject area for students.

Patrick: Sounds like all those pieces are very linear. Like, the Latin is linear, like math and logic obviously is a kind of linguistic type of mathematics. So, I love you saying that it's just a different type of language.

I had someone once tell me that, we study the creation, we talk about it two ways. We either write a sonnet or we do a math problem. Or we go look at a tree. We either hug the tree and feel the tree or we take a core sample, and you're saying the same thing. And then those things are related.

So, I frequently get the question, "Why are we learning Latin?" I mean, I get that question all the time. Why are we learning Latin? You probably get that same question.

Marianne: In fact, I got that question today.

We are learning Latin for a number of reasons. One, we're a classical school, and we want to get in touch with original documents and sources as much as possible and so much was written in Latin. So being able to go read some Cicero in the language once they gain those skills. In Upper School, the poetry of Catullus. I mean, they get to really experience on another level when you go read some of these words in their language and get to dive into history and be a little more contemporary with it.

But additionally, we don't think about the way we use language when we're doing it intuitively. And studying another language, especially a super detailed language like a classical language. You have to think about the grammar on a whole other level. And I love helping students gain the ability to realize what they're doing when they're communicating and to think critically about how they're communicating. I think it really improves their English and their writing.

Patrick: So, they're able to look at English and they are intuitively speaking, better by understanding a different language?

Marianne: Making sure their verbs have the right subject that they know exactly what it is they're saying they're going to be able to craft arguments better.

Additionally, of course, Latin is about half of English because when the Roman Empire expanded it covered Great Britain. And then when all the invaders came in, we've got the Anglo-Saxons that take over and English ends up being this hodgepodge of the leftover Latin with the Germanic Anglo-Saxon stuff. So, half of English is Latin, which from a practical standpoint, for my parents out there, SAT is going to be a lot easier, that English section is going to be a lot easier when you know your Latin roots. So, it's got that practical benefit as well.

Patrick: And we just went from philosophical to practical really, really quickly there. So, you just gave a mini lesson which is really neat of talking about Latin and its connection to history and geography.

And so how is Latin related to other disciplines, like how is it connected to the other things that we teach?

Marianne: That's a great question, thank you for asking it, because it is my joy to connect interdisciplinary. So Latin is such a wonderful subject area for that. Because it is the language of the Roman Empire and the Roman Empire was so tremendously influential on Western civilization, then I get to connected to a ton of history. Not only was the Roman Empire hundreds of years, but then Latin is still the language through the Middle Ages of scholars and coming out of the Middle Ages into the Renaissance it's still we're leaning back on those classical texts going forward. So, so much is written in Latin and the evolution of Latin into ecumenical Latin, you get to touch on history as it is marching along, and I get to help make those connections for students. So, history is a real obvious one where Latin is connected.

student with chick

Student in Introductory Biology and Epidemiology with Chick

It connects into science. I actually, in Middle School, I love in seventh grade they get chicks that they call pollets and it usually correlates with the chapter in which they learn about pulli the little baby animals that are in the Latin textbook. And so, helping them see that the language that we currently use in the science terms are coming out of Latin roots. And just letting them see those little connections like, "Wait, a second, is that why this is called a pollet?" It's like, "Yes, it is. It's Latin."

Language for science too is coming from those stems, so they get to make connections in eighth grade with their Earth Science class as they're learning about astronomy and the ocean. And it's just a really neat place where they can ask, "Is this related?" or "How is this word...?" "Does this mean...?" So, they get to ask all those questions, and I feel like we have the space to explore those questions.

Patrick: I have on my shelf the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, and I don't know, it's, you can't see the print. I can't see it anymore because I'm old now, but you have a magnifying glass, and it's still hard to see the print. So, when I taught, I used to tell the kids this is my favorite book on the shelf and they look at you like, "what is wrong with you?" But for that very reason, because it has every word in the English language up to the printing. And you find when you go back and look at where the word originates that it just unpacks history. You crack that word open and all of history just falls out from the word.

Marianne: And it's a lovely place to talk to them about philosophy as well. It's a launching point to have them think about how we think because words not only are they connected to so much history, but they're really an agreed upon way to point at an idea. And so, when they can think about language as, "How are we pointing at this idea?" and "This is this language's way to point at that idea." And when I'm translating, I want to capture the pointing, you know, more than just systematically plugging in what a word means. So, challenging them to think beyond just a formulaic translation is fun.

Patrick: I've never heard anyone say what you just said, which is very, I think, insightful and helpful. That language is pointing toward a thing. It's pointing towards something in creation and they're different languages pointing to that same thing, and they may call it different. And I guess by extension, math is doing that. All of our symbols are pointing at something in the creation. And that's cool.

So, you teach fifth and seventh grade, right?

Marianne: Yeah, this year, fifth and seventh.

Patrick: I'm curious if there are connections when you see them in fifth and seventh? Like, how they have changed, or connections that they're making between fifth and seventh? Like, what's the difference there?

Marianne: Fifth grade and sixth grade Latin, which I've done with the students, we're really trying to make it fun, keep it conversational, so that they can have some experience with language as a language.

Patrick: So, they actually use, they speak the language? Because frequently people are like, "Latin's a dead language. You don't speak it." So, they do speak it.

Marianne: Yeah, we have a conversational emphasis in Early Middle School Latin. And we're doing a lot of memorization of forms. And they don't necessarily know what all they're going to do. I give them little pieces and promise that in Middle School we're going to start to unpack why, why they have these chants memorized.

So, it's fun, then in Middle School to be able to pull back, "Hey, remember that song? Remember that chant?" and see them latch onto it and use it or teach it to somebody that wasn't here in fifth or sixth grade and build with that or remember that even though our textbook is staying mostly in the third person, they know what to do with these verb forms in the first and second person because we use them conversationally. So, I really like seeing the full, being able to develop a full sense of the language with them.

Patrick: So, what do they think about logic? Like, I can imagine a student being like, "Logic? Why am I taking this?" So, what do they think about logic?

Marianne: It is the first year we're doing logic in Middle School, and I definitely have them going, "What is this? Why is this logic?" I've had to tell them that they're not quite doing logic yet. Right now, we're building the pieces so we can do logic. We're just about wrapped up with the pieces they need to think like, what are the pieces about thinking that will let us then build into logic.

So, I've dangled that they're going to learn to be really good at arguing. They really like that idea of being able to pull things apart. It's so developmentally appropriate. They want to take things apart to find the flaws. And also, I think, have the confidence to put something back together, and go, "I can feel really good about this" in the midst of so much that's unknown when you're 13, 14 years old. To kind of go, "Okay, I'm going to have some tools to settle and say, 'Actually, I can conclude this safely.'" It's been really fun so far.

Patrick: And that's the dialectic time or it's getting close to the dialectic time in the classical model in the Trivium. So, do you see that in students you mentioned, they like to kind of deconstruct things, take them apart? Do you see that in your students?

Marianne: I definitely see the seventh graders; they just want to pick stuff apart. And they want to catch me. "What if?" "What about?" You know, they want to see if they can push that envelope and make something not true or not apply. So, I feel like it's a little bit of this constant like, okay, I want to invite that energy because they're invested and then keep it on the rails, you know? So, it's been really fun to see them in that perfect brain space to really be taking on logic.

Patrick: That's neat. So, we just started teaching that this year. It'll be interesting to see as they kind of move through, the impact of that.

So, you've mentioned several times in our conversation the classical, and I'd love for those in our audience who like "What? I think, I know what that is. Or maybe I'm just not quite sure what that means." Like what is classical Christian, sometimes we call it Christian liberal arts, education? What does that mean to you? Like, what is that thing?

Marianne: For me it has layers, but in part, I think that we still prioritize and find value in these "classical thinkers and works" that we would consider them still worth reading and knowing and engaging with. So, there's just the classical canon, the "Great Books," if you will, that have influenced Western civilization, which we are inheriting. So, wanting to do that intentionally understand where we get some of our biases. But also, I think the model of education being different. That classical education doesn't see things as compartmentalized subjects.

Patrick: In contrast to like, modern education.

Marianne: Right, right. You don't just go to your science class and do science and then go to your English class and do English and go to your history, like these things are all connected because wars and scientific discoveries and the artistic response. I mean, this is all the way that the Great Conversation unfolded through Western Civ. And so, I think an awareness that subject areas are connected. That's a big piece of classical for me, as well as the attitude of bringing students along and more of that Socratic method of walking with students and helping them discover things that they're discovering with their mind and not just feeding them answers. Yeah, I think all three of those layers for me wrap into what it means to be classical.

Patrick: And sometimes folks talk about the outcome being different as well. That the modern education is purely pragmatic. Can you speak to that? Like what's the difference in the outcome from your point of view of a classical Christian education versus what we'd call a pragmatic or modern education?

Marianne: The outcome for me is being a wise person at the end of that. Whereas I think in more of a modern education model, the outcome is may be like, "Do I have a good job?" "Will I make this much money?" My hope is to produce students that can know themselves, can know what makes a human being worthwhile, and think about how to live a good life. How am I going to be a good citizen? How am I going to be a good...? Whatever it is, they end up doing. To know themselves and to want wisdom and to want to make an impact on their community for good.

Patrick: How is that relevant today? So, I hear you saying the outcome is to know yourself, know your neighbor, know your world, and be able to work toward truth or beauty, goodness, whatever happens to be. How's that relevant? Can you think of ways that would be relevant to kids today, like in our culture or just in their space where they are as five through eight graders?

Marianne: Five through eight graders, I mean, we are living, they are living through such technological revolution. Like we just barely know what all these tools are going to do for us, right?

Patrick: And now we're supposed to be heading to the metaverse.

Marianne: Right. Like, it is kind of unthinkable being born in the "1900s," as they say. We're so old.

Patrick: Oh, don't say it like that.

Marianne: I know.

I think though, there's a lot of, you know, I'm going to go to school and I'm going to do this thing that's going to guarantee money that will mean that I can buy whatever I need to be happy. But I also think they're old enough now that they look at family members and neighbors who maybe aren't happy or have all those things but aren't nice to be around or are going through some sort of crises and don't know where to find themselves or defined by a social media facade, but the person behind it is confused and doesn't know who they are.

So just, there's so many little murky pieces in their world right now to tie it back to the driving questions that humans have been asking for thousands of years to let them know some of these questions are just the questions that we keep asking as human beings. I think there's some comfort in that. And also looking at what are some of these answers for what it means to live the good life? Because they apply regardless of your technological tools and job. And giving them hope that they can navigate that well. That that's something we're constantly doing culturally is to figure out, how do I navigate this world that I'm about to inherit given the wisdom of the past?

Patrick: One of my favorite musicals is Les Mis (Les Misérables) and, you know, Jean Valjean in there and his, one of his songs is, you know, "Who Am I?" And it seems to me, you mentioned this earlier, that the technology that we have and where it is heading is making us frequently and kids frequently question like, "What is my identity?" And I think you just, you know, you just mention that the classical liberal arts, in addition to many other things, can help them to center that identity on, obviously from our perspective, on Christ. But to center that identity, and to know themselves well. As opposed to having that identity be kind of on sand, and, you know, able to be changed frequently. That's cool.

If you could say, "This is the thing that I love about students, and this is the thing I love about teaching." What would that be?

Marianne: Well, I love students. I really, I love people. But I especially love getting to come into an age where students are willing to learn and have those conversations and ask questions and the vulnerability of that. So, it's such a humbling role to know that I could say something or teach them something or help them believe something about themselves and their capabilities that will actually stick with them, you know, years down the line. Mrs. Scrivner said that I was, you know, had a natural ability to think about this, or that I was really hard working, or something. So, I really like having that impact.

But I just love that like every day I don't know what I'm going to, what I'm going to get as a middle school teacher, right? I don't know if Student A is going to come in with their ten-year-old brain or they're like, 18-year-old brain. But like middle school is so, like they can be a child for five minutes of class and be an adult for 15 minutes of class and kind of go back and forth. So, there's a lot of variety that comes at me, and I kind of get to think on my feet so I like the challenge of that. And I like just meeting them there and telling them that's okay.

Patrick: That's cool. So, what are you doing in your free time? What are you learning? What podcast are you listening to? What are some of the favorite things that you are learning now?

Marianne: The only podcast that I've been listening to lately is called Sharon Says So. Have you heard of Sharon Says So?

Patrick: No, I have not.

Marianne: So, she calls herself the United States government teacher. She's a, she's no longer a government teacher, but she teaches a lot of people on social media about government and handling political conversations with respect to both sides, the importance of both sides and hearing each other well and collaborating on ideas. So that's been my newest discovery that I've been really enjoying.

Patrick: Why are you enjoying that? Just timely?

Marianne: Well, it's timely. Definitely. She's a gem. She walks... I have no idea what her political own leanings are because she carries them both so fairly. So, I really enjoy her peaceful perspective in the midst of some of the turmoil that's been going on in the last year or so.

But she's also real passionate about her subject area. And government was never one of my super good areas, so it's an area that I want to learn more about. So, I've learned a lot about U.S. government and constitution through that.

Patrick: And so, Marianne, as we kind of wrap up. Tell me about some of the things that Marianne likes to do when she's not teaching.

Marianne: When she's not teaching, I'm hanging out with my four kids. We like to play a lot of games together and hike, so during the summer there's usually a weekly hike that we'll do.

Patrick: Do you have some favorite hikes around here?

Marianne: We really like, there's a sweet, hidden hike in Duvall with a little waterfall at the end.

Patrick: Is that Cherry Falls?

Marianne: Yeah, yeah. Cherry Creek Falls, I think. That's a favorite. And then there's so many in Issaquah up in Tiger Mountain area, so we'll just pick a new route, but they all kind of connect.

And then I play the piano every day just as kind of a...

Patrick: Just a hobby, or something to de-stress?

Marianne: Yeah, a hobby to relax and to keep... My children are all practicing and learning to be musicians, and so I really want to model what it looks like to make mistakes publicly and work on something and revisit it. And I took piano back up years ago as really modeling for them.

Patrick: That's cool. And I notice you're an avid reader. What are some of the things that you're reading right now?

Marianne: Well, I've just been reading James K.A. Smith for our recent time with him. So that was On the Road with Saint Augustine. It's been really wonderful this last season to be reading that.

Patrick: Well, Marianne, thank you for joining us today, and I really appreciate what you are doing here at The Bear Creek School with our students, and thanks for taking the time today.

Marianne: Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Thank you for listening to Bear Conversations, a podcast of The Bear Creek School. Join me next month for another conversation with our Bear Creek faculty and subscribe to or follow our podcast to automatically receive the next episode. You can find the show notes from this episode on our website at tbcs.org/podcast.

Bonus Marianne: I've certainly come into a classroom and discovered that I've got a student whose head is under the desk and feet are over the back of the chair. But actually, maybe, that's like, the calmest they've been all day. You know, so just like, trying to balance how are they going to learn well in the midst of just crazy times in middle school.