My First Virtual Classroom: 5 Tips to Design Your Own

As my own children have gotten older, I have gradually taken on more work “outside the home”. I have substitute taught, tutored, and taught a variety of classes online. As I have begun to teach more virtual classes, I have missed having a classroom space for learning centers, resources, and motivational posters.

For the past few years, I have contracted with VIPKID to teach English to children in China. Most recently, I have been teaching a variety of online science classes through Outschool. While I have been able to build relationships with my students and their families and find joy in teaching, a “classroom” space was the one missing component.

To provide a cohesive place to gather all the resources I share with my students and to aid in communicating with their parents, I recently developed a virtual classroom. It’s been so much fun!

Features of My Virtual Classroom

The virtual classroom provides me with a way to immerse my students in the content and maximize the learning time I have with them each lesson. With a handy video tutorial by Thomas Blackmore I was able to set up my virtual classroom in under an hour.

For my virtual classroom, I’ve decided to only activate a few items this week to challenge my students to find the hidden activities. For my “Junior Naturalists” class, one of the features leads to the document where the students and I share our nature journals. Another leads students to a digitized version of Leonardo da Vinci’s journal.

Next week, I plan to add more active links and perhaps a couple of additional objects to my classroom and an ongoing “What Can it Be?” type of activity with either a microscope or telescope. I also plan to add audio messages in the near future.

I have so many ideas on what else I would like to try within my room! For now, I will share my top five tips for designing your own virtual classroom.

Five Tips to Design Your Virtual Classroom

  1. When inserting images, use “png” or “transparent” in your search query to find objects that have a transparent background. You might also consider Lunapic. Lunapic is a free website where you can make the backgrounds of many images transparent, recolor, or add all sorts of effects.
  2. If you can’t find an image in the exact color you desire, first go to Format options in the menu above (or right-click on the image). Then select an option from the Color menu that appears on the right panel.
  3. If you use Chrome and you want to use your Bitmoji, I suggest adding the Bitmoji Chrome extension. This way you can insert images directly into Google Slides. Alternatively, you can create a file folder with Google Drive and download your favorite images. This helps if you plan on attaching audio files to your Bitmoji (see tip 4). Unfortunately, you cannot copy and paste your sticker from the Bitmoji extension and then add audio to it.
  4. To add audio to an image of your choice, first add the audio file to your slide. Then click on the audio icon and click Replace Image which will appear in the menu bar above. Then either search for the image in Google or upload an image. If the new image is not square, parts of it may be cut off. To correct this, click on the “crop image” icon and adjust the bold, black cropping handles as needed. 
  5. For any objects that you wish to keep stationary (i.e. the floor) I recommend that you add those to the slide master. This will clean up your canvas. With several images, it can get crowded and difficult to isolate a single image to make changes. To access the slide master, click on the Slide – Edit master. Keep in mind that the images you place in the slide master can not be linked to a URL or an audio file.

An Extraordinary Time: Homeschooling Yesterday and Today

When the kids were younger, you would often find us on the beach with Papa, meandering about the woodlands, or strolling along on the Deschutes River Trail just a stone’s throw from our home.

A common query from strangers was, “No school today, kids?”

“Nope, we’re homeschoolers! The shoreline is our school today!” the kids would shout in unison.

In shock or dismay the examination continued. “Oh, but … how can you,” they stammered. “I mean, you will still spend time learning, won’t you?”

image of a grandfather walking along the shoreline at low tide with his two grandchildren, text overlay reads: "an extraordinary time: a look at homeschooling yesterday and today"

Classrooms Today

We’re living in a most unusual time and I don’t mean just due to the worldwide pandemic caused by the novel coronavirus. We are living in a time where most people consider learning to be directly associated with a small space inside four walls.

With pencils,
worksheets,
textbooks,
calculators,
whiteboards,
desks,
structure,
routines,
bells,
tests,
and grades.

Stop and picture a typical classroom today. In your mind’s eye, you likely see a group of children gathered by age as the primary criteria. At the front of the classroom, an often overwhelmed and overworked teacher delivering a prescribed lesson at a prescribed pace. A tight set of curriculum standards, assessment measures, deadlines, and accountability governing them all.

How is this scenario considered the gold standard for all students?

A specific, narrow definition of success that is taught early and reinforced often. A place where the pressure to perform and the fear of failure chip away at a child’s mental strength almost daily, exacerbated by the potential of that failure happening openly in front of their peers.

The One Room Schoolhouse

Growing up, my favorite television program was Little House on the Prairie. I loved Laura’s spunk and pictured myself as her regularly. I also loved the one room school house and wanted more than anything to be a school teacher just as Laura aspired to be when she was growing up.

While I never had the opportunity to teach in a one-room school, I cultivated this idea when I made the decision to homeschool my children in 2006. Homeschooling provided the means to surround my children with learners of all ages. More importantly, we were not confined by the walls of the classroom.

Last week, I binge watched Anne with an E on Netflix. I loved the series so much. I had of course read the books years ago but the actors in this version really touched me, especially Miss Stacy.

Miss Stacy, the forward thinking, fierce, and compassionate young teacher (portrayed by the actor Joanna Douglas) who brought new life into the Avonlea schoolhouse. This was me! This is me!

Back on the stream bank, among the ripples, wildlife, plant life, physical exertion, and fresh air … we observed, we experimented, we asked questions, and we learned.

None of what we were surrounded by matched the accepted definition of the best possible “modern” learning space. None of it looked like what learning was supposed to look like. Yet this was our classroom.

Homeschool Spotlight

Around the world, classes have been suspended and schools are locking their doors. In Arizona, the remainder of the school year has been cancelled and Oregon is considering the same decision.

Parents have suddenly found themselves thrust into educating their children at home. Parents are now desperate for activities and educational experiences to occupy their time. There is now a global spotlight on homeschooling.

While it is wonderful to have so much attention on homeschooling, we must be careful to recognize that most of us aren’t actually homeschooling. Even veteran homeschool families like myself. Not fully.

We are all isolated from the world around us. Home educated kids don’t spend their lives at home the way we have been asked to right now.

Six months ago, homeschoolers would be at the library, the swimming pool, an art gallery, at the beach, at the park, or exploring a museum. They would be at Tae Kwon Do, dance class, music lessons, or at drama school.

They were interacting with all the different people in all those different spaces, and the balance this gives is incredibly important to a homeschooling lifestyle. Right now, they are not doing any of this.

image of two high school students seated at a dining room table with a laptop computer and working collaboratively on a project

Homeschooling Tomorrow

I’m hearing from a lot of parents who are struggling. Admittedly, I am struggling. These are extraordinary times. Nothing about this is normal, homeschooling included.

Not surprisingly, families have reached out to me to inquire about homeschool. They are curious about our story and desire to learn more. While the present situation is challenging for everyone, I want to encourage you.

The curriculum we have used has changed as the kids have gotten older. Today, they are both dual enrolled at the community college and taking courses full time on campus (though spring term all their coursework will be delivered online).

Homeschooling has provided us with a rich life experience. Through it all, we have always strived for five things:

meaningful work
good books
beauty (art, music, nature)
ideas to ponder and discuss
imaginative play

It is uncertain where we will be six months from now. When we begin to return to some measure of normalcy, I hope some of you will choose to continue homeschooling. I would be delighted to go tide-pooling with you.

Looking Back on My Years with VIPKID

Nearly two years ago, I signed my first contract with VIPKID. My original intent was simply to make a little extra money.  Our family aimed to live a debt-free life and we were intent on paying off our mortgage.

I also expected to develop a broader perspective of the world of education. Yet, I had no idea just how much it would change my life. While it started out as a side hustle to earn extra cash, I have fallen in love with teaching all over again.

Rediscovery

I first began my teaching career as a student teacher when I was yet in college. Since then, I have volunteered to teach aboard (summer 1993 in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico), served as an elementary science specialist,  and taught every grade but high school. I have been a substitute teacher and currently teach professional development courses online for other educators.

I have taught homeschool co-ops and have lead hundreds of students on nature walks. I have also worked in informal education settings – teaching natural sciences at the estuarine reserve and marine life center. And would you believe, I am now my son’s Scoutmaster?! 

I have focused so much of my energies on homeschooling my own children in recent years that I have missed having direct interaction with students and the fulfillment that comes from cultivating those relationships. VIPKid has helped me rediscover this joy. 

I don’t invest my time and energy into something just because it’s a job. I do it because it’s my passion. I must admit though, working from home in the comfort of my favorite pair of leggings is pretty hard to beat. 

Personal notes from my students

Building relationships

To build a rapport with my students, I generally spend the first few minutes of the class intentionally getting to know my students. This is especially important with students I have not taught before. I ask probing questions to learn about their interests. 

As I leave feedback for parents, I ask for input about how I can customize  lessons to better suit their child. I am a more effective if I am able to make the lessons more personal. I believe strongly that this personal touch and extra care for the families with whom I interact has helped me to develop a close friendship with several of the parents of my students.

Through conversations we have shared over time, either through the VIPKid platform or through WeChat,  we have discussed not only their child’s education, but we have also shared insights about our unique cultures, traditions, and beliefs.

My own children have been learning Mandarin Chinese since they were in preschool and as a family, we traveled to China in 2013.  I am familiar with the culture yet the relationships I have developed with my VIPKid families has enriched my life exponentially.

Are you seeking employment?

If you have a bachelor’s degree (no matter the content area) and experience working with children, I strongly encourage you to consider VIPKid. The hiring process has been simplified and there are a wealth of resources to help you get started.

I would love to help coach you along the way. My personal referral code is EVA000007 – reach out to me with any questions.

5 Confessions of an Imperfect Homeschool Blogger

When I first started blogging, I used my blog as a platform to share with friends and family our adventures in homeschooling. We were the first family in my social circle to make the decision to homeschool and our decision was not without criticism.

I wanted to show those that doubted just how wonderful our homeschool journey was and how much the children were prospering. Like many, I wanted to be uplifting – not a whiner or complainer. I wanted to be inspirational. This meant that I posted often the fun projects the kids would undertake or when something cool or exciting was happening. It also meant that the content on this blog was pretty upbeat and focused on mostly uncontroversial topics.

Over time, as I evolved from a hobby blogger to a professional homeschool blogger my approach became more focused. While this is all good, I find myself struggling to stay caught up with the rapid changes of FTC regulations, engage in social media, create pinnable images, and develop good SEO while simultaneously navigating our own homeschool and family life.homeschool teen giving a presentation with text - confessions of an imperfect homeschoolerI haven’t been posting very often recently and this is mostly due to a changing season in our homeschool journey. As the kids have gotten older, I am less involved in their learning. They have become more independent and less reliant on me for planning activities and outings. As a result, I find I have less to share.

So, it’s confession time. Here are my five confessions as an imperfect homeschool blogger.

Our Imperfect Homeschool

1. We have fallen off the bandwagon, or at least changed our approach

I have hinted at our changing educational style in an earlier post, Our Relaxed Homeschool. We have always had a gentle approach to education. In recent years, I have become more hands-off. When we moved back to Oregon we lived with my in-laws for a few months. This was a huge distraction. It is hard to stay focused on algebra when Judge Judy is reprimanding a plaintiff.

Additionally, to offset the change in my husband’s income (one of the sacrifices we made to move back home), I began to take on more work outside the home. I began substitute teaching and home tutoring. I also began work with VIPKID. Along with my volunteer obligations (Scouts and swim team previously), I am strained. I have to admit, I let school slide into a bare minimum.

I have essentially thrown out Charlotte Mason’s principles which were so successful with my daughter. I have now adopted an unschooling approach to my son’s education. I’m still grappling though with whether to continue with a relaxed approach or adopt more of a schedule. I fear he takes advantage of me and spends more time playing Minecraft (yet I know it is educational too) than learning.

For a several reasons, we also chose to partner with an umbrella school. There were just too many positives to not give it a try. I haven’t talked about this much yet but I will.

I know there are seasons for everything and that children are individuals. But it does make it hard to have material for a homeschool blog when we aren’t doing more than Odysseyware, Life of Fred math, piano lessons, and occasional nature studies.

2. I don’t fit into my local homeschool group

In the previous two communities in which we lived (Bend, Oregon and Redding, California), we connected with a great community of like-minded homeschoolers. We were not a part of Classical Conversations, though a thriving CC community existed in each, but we had a circle of homeschoolers with children of varying ages with whom we were able to enjoy the benefits of an informal co-op which included activities like STEM Club, book club, Writer’s Workshop, and Roots & Shoots.

Here, I really am a misfit. Most of the homeschool families in this area are involved in a very exclusive homeschool co-op (they require participants to sign a specific faith statement) or utilize an online charter school (K12 or Connections Academy). My style of homeschool education looks more like radical unschooling in contrast to the homeschoolers around me.

homeschool teen playing Minecraft with text - confessions of an imperfect homeschooler3. My son does not like to read

He has never enjoyed reading – I know this is in part due to his nystagmus. There are books he has read over and over again (thank you, Roland Smith!) but it is very difficult to get him to read much of anything. I could write an entire post about my son’s distaste for reading. In fact, I probably should. Perhaps it would help me to come to terms with it.

I know it is okay not to love reading  but I also harbor a fear that I have failed him. Fortunately, he has always enjoyed listening to audio books. However, he presently listens to speed cubing and tech reviews, Minecraft gaming videos, and air crash investigations on YouTube rather than literature.

4. Teens are fickle

In the summer of 2016, my daughter was passionate about potentially beginning her own Boba Tea business. She spent many hours researching recipes, designing a logo, and developing a business plan. Most impressive was her willingness to undertake a market research poll of our local community at the farmer’s market. Through her efforts, she made the realization that starting a Boba Tea business would distract from her ultimate goal of becoming an engineer and the schooling required to achieve it.

The following summer, she became intrigued with tiny houses. Her new goal was to build a tiny house prior to graduating high school in an effort to reduce her own carbon footprint and save money on living expenses while in college. She again spent many hours researching and designing her home (you should see her Pinterest board). Ultimately, she opted to put this project on hold for as artist, she also dreams of a large studio space.

Youthful vigor and enthusiasm is wonderful. Channeling it and following through with their visions is an entirely different ball game. Their interests and passions change. While this is certainly a great life lesson, it makes it difficult to blog about their successes.

5. My daughter wants to skip high school and just get to college

My daughter began dual enrollment courses in the fall of 2016. She started out with just one math course but has gradually increased her course load. She is now taking a full load of courses at the community college and is loving every minute. I will be sharing more of this experience on the iHomeschool Network blog soon.

Both of my children have always had a passion for learning. This passion and enthusiasm is still there, but it is reserved for the things they are truly passionate about, not the things I select for them or that the state deems required. While meeting with a college advisor from the four year university where she wishes to transfer she exclaimed,

“I want to do pro-school now! I wish I could just jump past high school.”

Whether we are engaged in an lively family discussion about current events, meandering about the ruins of an ancient temple, or sequestered in our little corner of the house with our mobile device and tuning out the outside world, I know we are learning. Above all, I believe instilling a love of learning and a curiosity about the world is the most important thing. And that is exactly what we are doing.

After all, we are just like you — imperfect homeschoolers. And I, I am an imperfect homeschool blogger.

 

I Travel to China Every Morning with VIPKID

These past couple of weeks have been crazy busy and so very fun! I took on a new job with VIPKID and I have thus been immersed in learning all the material as I have dove head first into this new adventure.

I first learned of VIPKID in late September. I was intrigued by the possibility of working from home and most importantly, finishing my “work day” before my own children crawled out of bed.

Through VIPKID, I now teach English to children in China. Because of the time difference, I generally begin teaching at 4:30 or 5:00 am each weekday. I could begin even earlier but I fear I would be a zombie the rest of the day. It’s been a very rewarding experience thus far and I am excited to share with you.

My VIPKID Experience @EvaVarga.net5 Questions I’m Often Asked About VIPKID

You have to get up at 4am? Are you crazy?!

Yes, I have to get up early – Beijing time is 9 hours different than Pacific time. Admittedly, when my alarm goes off, my knee-jerk reaction is, “What have I done? I just want to sleep!” But once I am in the virtual classroom and I see the smiling faces of my students, I am quickly reminded of the joy this new job brings me.

VIPKID was listed #5 on the “best places to work from home” list from Forbes this year.

Teachers at VIPKID are able to set their own calendars. I homeschool my kiddos and also substitute teach. With the time difference, there are only certain times (Beijing time) that I am available. Sadly, in November my available hours will be even less due to the time change. I may consider waking even earlier – at least a couple days a week to accommodate my return students.

Working with these children is so much fun! I’ve already connected with several students who have continually booked classes with me 3x each week and it’s only my third week!

I’ve never taught ESL? Is it difficult?

Teaching with VIPKID is a lot easier than I initially anticipated. They provide powerpoint slides for each lesson. I thereby need only gather a few props to augment the lesson and I’m ready to go.

You learn all you need to know through online training workshops and tutorials. They also offer in-person coaching at some cities around the country.

Through the interview and mock class process prior to signing the teaching contract, I learned tips and suggestions for success in teaching each of the levels. Most importantly, I learned how to teach students with little or NO English experience by using lots of modeling – a technique called Total Physical Response (TPR) – and lots of props.

Classes are one-on-one and it’s a great cultural experience. I love getting to know the students and engaging the advanced students in conversation.

Are you required to work a certain number of hours or certain days?

Just like substitute teaching, I can create my own schedule and teach as many classes as I want. It is entirely up to me!

Some VIPKID teachers teach on the weekends – even pulling all-nighters. But not me. I designate a few hours each weekday morning to VIPKID and the rest of the day is my own.

How much are you paid?

Teachers at VIPKID can earn anywhere from $14 – 20 per hour. Each class is just 30 minutes (25 minutes of actual teaching time and 5 minutes allowed to write feedback). Arriving on time to class and teaching 30+ classes per month earn you bonuses.

While you aren’t going to get rich and the hours are not guaranteed, it is super fun and a great way to make some money on the side. The company is helpful and they always have fun incentives. They pay you for successful referrals and offer fun contests where money prizes or swag items are awarded.

If you are interested in teaching with VIPKID, please use my referral code 04XIOQ  –  and let me help you along the way!

VIPKID is a Chinese-based company, and if you work for them as a teacher, you are working as a contractor, which means that you will need to primarily be responsible for promoting yourself and ensuring your own success.

Teaching online? Do you need to be tech savvy?

You can work from anywhere in the world as long as you have a reliable internet connection, a webcam, and a headset. Teaching online is definitely different, however, than teaching in a real classroom. There are nuances and obstacles – often related to tech issues – that sometimes arise and this can affect both the parent feedback you receive and your pay.

Though I have only been with VIPKID for a month, I have found nothing but positive experiences working for this company. They are constantly working to improve – their communications, their curriculum, and their system of incentives.

The Chinese employees that handle parent communications are helpful and supportive. The pay is commensurate with the amount of work expected.

What I Learned About Life and Spirituality from Prince

When I heard that Prince had passed away, I was substitute teaching in a kindergarten classroom. My mother-in-law had texted me and I immediately pulled out my phone to confirm. It couldn’t be true.

It was the first time the death of a celebrity hit me in a real and immediate way. There was first disbelief, followed by dread and nausea. I struggled to keep it together until the dismissal bell released me. Then the tears that wrung out of my body were so strong it gave me stomach cramps.Prince Lessons

I drove home and immediately crawled into bed. I got a call from my mom asking if I was okay. She knew my heartache for she had experienced a similar loss when Elvis passed.

I am very grateful that my mother recognized his impact on my life very early. She purchased my first concert ticket for his Lovesexy tour in 1988 and drove seven hours one way to assure I could see him perform live.

“I’m a musician. I am music.” ~ Prince 

I would see him perform once more in Portland in 2004 for Musicology. I had hoped to see his Piano & a Microphone tour in 2016 but missed my chance.

Since his death on April 21, 2016, I have watched numerous video clips of his live performances, interviews, and amateur tour footage that have been shared online. The explosion of material now available have provided his #PurpleArmy with the solace we seek, an opportunity for one more connection with him.

Prince Rogers Nelson

Prince Rogers Nelson was born June 7, 1958 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His parents, Mattie Della and John Lewis Nelson, and grandparents were from Louisiana.  His parents separated when he was ten years and he subsequently repeatedly switched homes often as a teen. Yet music was always a strong element in his life.

Prince first began recording in 1975 with 94 East. A year later he signed a recording contract with Warner Bros whereupon they agreed to give him complete creative control.

His talent was limitless. He was a master composer, musician, and revolutionary artist. I dare say there is not a single artist in my lifetime who has influenced the sound and trajectory of music as much as he.

“I’m no different to anyone. Yes, I have fame and wealth and talent, but I certainly don’t consider myself any better than anyone who has no fame, wealth or talent. People fascinate me. They’re amazing! Life fascinates me! And I’m no more fascinated by my own life than by anyone else’s.” ~ Prince

A Legacy of Equality

I first discovered Prince while watching Night Tracks on TBS. They had aired two performances by him back-to-back, Little Red Corvette and 1999. I was immediately attracted to the music and his individuality. He was like no one else. He was different.

“I don’t really care so much about what people say about me. It usually is a reflection of who they are. For example, if people wish that I would sound the way I used to sound, it says more about them, than it does me.” ~ Prince

As the years progressed, his style evolved. Through it all, strong female musicians were an integral part of his band. They were not solely backup singers or dancers (though he did have those as well) but his partners – Wendy Melvoin, Sheila E., Rosie Gaines, and Candy Duffer amongst others.

Emma Garland recently stated that women are generally portrayed as passive objects in music, which is to not exist at all. “With Prince, they were addressed with awe and empathy. He wrote about women as real, powerful, complicated, sensitive, and sexual beings that he could learn from, and who enriched his life.”

Prince_FreeA Legacy of Freedom

He caught the media’s attention early in his career with his stage presence and outrageous costumes. Many of his songs were overtly sexual. Yet, Prince never made any apologies for who he was and always preached that the most important thing is staying true to yourself.

“Despite everything, no one can dictate who you are to other people.” ~ Prince

He showed me early the power of living one’s life by one’s own rules and no one else’s. He empowered me to walk my own path and to not be persuaded by others to follow the crowd.

Throughout every emotionally difficult time in my life, I’ve sang the lyrics to his songs in my mind. Repeating stanzas like a mantra. The song that had the biggest impact on me was most assuredly Free (lyrics shown above).

A Legacy of Compassion

Prince was also a secret philanthropist, supporting causes including youth empowerment, animal rights, racial justice, and clean energy for all. His compassion for the others was an important part of his legacy.

“Compassion is an action word with no boundaries.” ~ Prince

The legendary musician was renowned for speaking out on behalf of those who were vulnerable and voiceless. According to federal tax forms, his charity, Love 4 One Another, gave more than $1.5 million between 2005 and 2007 alone.

A new mural of Prince has been unveiled from 10:10 on Vimeo.

The climate charity 10:10 recently commissioned a new mural in honor of Prince’s contributions to environmental causes in Camden, north London. The mural kicks off their six-week campaign to provide solar panels to food banks and charities – groups that reflect the commitment to community, creativity and humanity that Prince demonstrated in life with his secret philanthropy.

“If you ever lose someone dear to you, never say the words, ‘They’re gone.’ They’ll come back.” ~ Prince

When he gave, he made only one request, to not publicize it. He wanted no publicity or accolades for the gifts he bestowed. Many of those who were impacted by his generosity only began sharing of his compassion after he had passed.

A Legacy of Love

Throughout his career, he brought cultures together. Uniting sexes and working to instill his message of love for one another. His fans or #PurpleArmy continue to share his vision.

Spirituality has always been a part of his music. Prince’s musical and lyrical explorations of spiritual themes are evident in each and every album he released. More importantly, he embodied and lived by his spiritual principals.

So many reasons why
There’s so many reasons why
I don’t belong here
But now that I am I
Without fear I am
Gonna conquer with no fear
Until I find my way back home

~ Prince, “Way Back Home”

When I think of Prince, both his music and his life overall, I don’t so much think about religion. When I think of him, I think of love—not romantic or sexual love—but unconditional, human love. A love that transcends gender, race, or religion. A love not limited to one’s family, social circle, community or nation. A love we are most in need of cultivating if we are to grow and evolve.

Prince logo.svg