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An Architect Accidently Builds a School

From deep within the Atlas Mountains comes the story of love, growth, community and development. Brooke Benoit digs in and shares Itto’s story.

“Want for your sister what you want for yourself” is one of those Muslim maxims that readily rolls off our tongues from time to time. In a small village in the remote High Atlas Mountains of Morocco, one sister wanted something exceptional for her children. And when she glimpsed the chance to get it, she worked hard for it – for herself and her neighbours. Leaving behind a hectic urban lifestyle, Itto, a revert German Muslimah, and her husband – Abu Bassou, a Berber from Morocco, resettled their young family in the country-side valley of the High Atlas Mountains.


It was there that she had first come to love the Muslim-based culture and country. Initially they lived in Abu Bassou’s father’s home and at the time, their son’s education was a distant but bothersome concern. It to was preoccupied with her discoveries of the local culture, language and the simple ways of living. Electricity had only recently come to their village and their house, like most, was without running water.


While caring for their child and helping her husband with his own work, she designed their ideal future home using her architectural and interior design training, “The house was made without machines, only by the blessed hands and sweat of local workers. Although with a traditional looking exterior, I designed the interior with some European comfort and created an eclectic dialogue between our two cultures. We didn’t have much savings but subhanAllah, God helped us with His mercy to realise our own house, bit by bit. The concept of the house was huge, as we wished to rent rooms to tourists in the future.”


They had their second child during the building phase and as their first son grew closer to school age, the more Itto pondered how she would educate him with so few options available to her, “He is a very curious, strong and vivid child, alhamdulillah. With him I learned so much about childhood and myself, about old patterns and preconceptions. I knew that I didn’t want to follow conservative ways of disciplining and educating.” And so she began her reading journey into child rearing, time management and attachment parenting.


The Swiss seed
In the spring of 2007, the couple organised a tour in the valley for a little private school from Switzerland, Scuola Vivante, to learn more about Moroccan culture and Islam. Scuola Vivante is founded by Veronika and Jurg Maeder who developed a pedagogy that emphasises “humanity, respect, tolerance, and follows the personal rhythm of the child.” The cultural exchange truly went both ways, “We immediately felt very touched by the politeness, natural curiosity and enthusiasm of the students and by the spirit of the whole group. It was a meeting of two different cultures and religions but also of like-minded souls. I soon wished our sons would have the chance for an education like theirs. When the group left, Veronika said to me: ‘If you ever wish to build a school here in the valley, we will help you.’ SubhanAllah, Allah is the best of planners; the seed was sown and it slowly germinated subconsciously.”


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Itto’s parenting research took on a different tone. She began learning more about various educational methodologies and was enthralled when a friend off-handedly mentioned homeschooling: “I soon read book after book and discovered blogs and websites of other like-minded women. A whole new world opened up to me – subhanAllah – full of inspiration, support and new ideas.” She “felt a new enthusiasm and encouragement,” and began implementing the methods she was learning about. She gained confidence that she could provide her children with an education in their own home and began seeing herself as an “unschooling mama.”


As her son’s friends and neighbouring children came through their home she naturally shared their new system. “When I offered the other kids the possibility to express themselves creatively, I saw the hunger they had for this. I saw the need for positive adult attention, the need for a place to be accepted as a child, the need for inspiration, encouragement, good learning materials, books and a place where they can follow their own pace. I slowly began to think about the possibility of providing such a nourishing and respectful environment for other children.”



From seed to sprout
In this High Atlas valley children only finish the mandatory first six years of school and then must leave their immediate families to continue studying in larger towns and cities. With such limited options and possibly only “harsh and poor conditions” available to the local children, it was obvious to Itto and Abu Bassou that they needed to share what they were creating for their own children. They decided to develop “a little school.”



Abu Bassou began the tedious, disappointing work of researching logistics. The paperwork was extensive and the preparations needed a lot of money, which they didn’t have, but with the support of Scuola Vivante they continued following the path as it unfolded. A partnership organically formed between the two families, communities and cultures. Itto visited the school in Switzerland and small groups of students visited the valley. During one visit with the young students, Itto was inspired as she saw her house as “a vibrant place of learning and opportunity,” and she suddenly realised that with a few minor conversions they already had their schoolhouse. She drew the necessary alterations and the couple applied for an official school license.



Then she prayed istikhara. “Things seemed to become so serious now, time flew and I felt that I had to put all my trust in Allah. And subhanAllah, Allahu akbar, after the prayer of guidance was done, everything just came into place: friends from France offered their help to collect materials, we found Rachida – the most convenient lovely teacher and we got the permission from the government. Alhamdulillah!”



école vivante, “the lively school,” initially opened a youth centre last summer with a humble offering of “some little stools and tables, crayons, watercolour, paper, some toys and a ball.” The response was overwhelming, but encouraging. “The hunger for meaningful occupation, for creativity and play, for sports, for love and care was so pressing and immense. For a dirham per person, we opened the workshops for three hours every weekday and also provided a snack for everybody.”



This was the sign Itto needed to push forward the plans to open the school.



From sprout to blossom
Abu Bassou founded a non-profit association to manage the burgeoning social aid and service aspects of the project and they began accepting applications. Having only 15 slots available for the first year, the school unexpectedly needed an admission process when 40 potential students applied. Itto arranged a meeting with the parents to thoroughly explain the school’s philosophy, “Our aim is to give access to motivated children and to those whose parents truly are interested in a new way of being with children.” Rather than offering the expected style of “classical and frontal” teaching, Itto wanted it to be “clear that children in our school have the right to be children, to play, to be active, to follow their own pace and interests; that we put very little focus on results and measurable success but much more on the entire personal development of every individual; the national curriculum is a guideline but we spend more time doing practical and creative work than using books – even in math, language and science.”


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école vivante is not just a school in the High Atlas, it is an exceptional learning environment, “It is eclectically based on ideas of free-spirit, independent learning and respect towards the needs of every individual child, rooted in the Muslim faith, and on the holistic pedagogical concept of Scuola Vivante. It is adapted to the needs of the local Berber people, in harmony with their religion, culture and traditions in confrontation with a modern and quickly changing world.”



The school fixed their tuition price at 200 Moroccan dirhams per month, which is an immense price for families in the area but still well under private tuition and completely insufficient to cover the school’s costs. 20% of the students don’t pay any tuition; instead they are supported by external sponsorship and sometimes offer their own support to the programme by way of donating natural goods, such as eggs, milk or wool. And just as some families must rely on the help of extended family to cover tuition fees, the school itself has only come to fruition through an extended arm of aid from varying places: the Swiss partnership, the couple’s network of friends and family both in Morocco and Europe.



Itto, who originally came to the valley as a university student to learn their traditional mud house building techniques, is optimistic about the opportunities for cultural exchange and thoughtful adaptation in order to support and sustain the valley, rather than continue to have a one way export of people and loss of culture. There are plans underway for a library, meeting spaces and a large hall. For mixed-age groups and adults, the association has held numerous skill-exchanging and sustainability-related workshops. Her optimism and enthusiasm are met by her neighbours; several have already changed their plans to send their children out of the valley and instead are helping to further extend the school and along with it, their community.




In September of 2010 école vivante – “the lively school” – began their first school year and youth center programme offering a truly unique, customised pedagogy for the children and families in their rural High Atlas Valley of Morocco. The goal of the community-based project is to foster each child’s individual personality and needs, while sustaining the valley’s rich culture in an environment of positive cultural exchange. The anticipated student body has nearly doubled for the 2011 school year and the community is motivated to see their programmes flourish, insha Allah. To contact the school about participating in their ongoing development or to offer support, please visit their website: www.ecolevivante.com/

Brooke Benoit is an American artist mama living and praying in Morocco. Amongst her many interests and concerns are radical education reform, sustainable living practices, self-expression and discovery through art, and sisterly love.



All images taken by itto.
Copyright by école vivante