(CNN)Rachel Papo was still reeling from the shock of becoming a mother when her family moved from Brooklyn to the smaller, more rural town of Woodstock, New York, in 2010.
In a cafe they frequented, they met a waitress and her 5-year-old daughter, True. The child was vibrant, “extremely special,” Papo remembers.
“She told me she’s homeschooled,” Papo said, meaning that True didn’t attend a traditional school, but instead, learned at home. “I literally didn’t know it existed. When I heard about it, I thought it was really strange, a really odd thing.
“How can these kids be normal if they’re not part of the mainstream?”
Papo, a photographer, grew up in Israel and attended schools there. She was familiar with other educational models like Montessori and Waldorf. But the idea that children’s schools could be their homes, their parents the teachers, and the world their textbooks, intrigued her. Papo decided to shoot portraits of True and perhaps other homeschooled children living in the area.
On their first visit, True changed Papo’s mind.
“I went to her home and there was a whole world there for me to photograph,” said Papo, now based in Berlin. “She was incredible. She showed me everything in her house, everything around her house. I was running around after her. She had so much energy and life to her.”
Over two years in Woodstock, Papo photographed about 15 homeschooled children in the area. The images will be published a book, “Homeschooled,” to be released in Europe this spring and in the United States in the fall. Essays from the parents of homeschooled children will be included, along with some insight from the kids themselves.
Papo came to learn that many people choose homeschooling for religious reasons. But among those she met, people’s reasons were entirely their own.
“Each one was completely different than the other, and each had different reasons and approaches,” she said. “A lot were extremely educated. Some are certified teachers, some are world travelers. The children were really pretty remarkable.”
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Some kept a schedule, some were more flexible. Some worked on the family farm, some studied in groups with other homeschoolers. Many spent their days out in nature, learning about trees, plants and animals, or designed a curriculum around their own interests.
“They were all very special and very sensitive and mature,” Papo said. “They were in a world of their own, but they weren’t afraid to share it.”
Her mind opened as she met more homeschooled children and learned how full and deliberate their days could be. While the days sometimes moved slower, every moment was a chance to learn — whether they were feeding ducks, baking cookies or reading books.
It didn’t turn Papo off of traditional schools, she said, but she wondered, “How could there be a way to bridge the two?”
She would be interested in homeschooling her own children, she said. Her family is planning to move back to New York, and there, she would have the option. She just doesn’t think she could pull it off.
“They have patience, which I don’t even have on the weekends,” she said of homeschooling parents. “I’m sure there’s a lot of failed attempts along the way.
“I love that in America, you have the freedom to try it.”
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