Many school districts around the country are starting the school year entirely, or at least partially, virtually.  While this presents new challenges for educators and families, it also opens the door to greater opportunities for family travel since children and teens can conduct their online classes from practically anywhere.  That includes one of our spacious cabins in Wears Valley.  To help families with school-aged kids navigate their first Virtual Learning Vacation, we asked Mr. N, an international educator originally from East Tennessee, to give us some suggestions.  Here are Mr. N’s top 5 tips for a Virtual Learning Vacation.

Virtual Learning Vacation Tips

1. Reading app (12 and under) – Epic!

Research shows that the single most important factor in a student’s educational success is pleasure reading.  When kids are allowed to read for fun, they discover new information while building reading fluency.  Parents can get Epic! free for the first 30 days and $7.99 afterwards.  Your child’s teacher most likely has a class subscription that can be used during school hours for free, as well.  This app empowers student reading development at home; books can even be searched by your child’s reading level (you can find this information out from their teacher).  Quizzes and videos for e-books are available, but the most important thing is that they are enjoying reading.

2. Non-fiction reading (12 and older) – Newsela

With the general adoption of Common Core State Standards in 2010, the main focus of middle and high school English classes shifted from novels and short stories to non-fiction texts.  To support student comprehension and vocabulary acquisition, Newsela provides student-appropriate news articles that can be adjusted to meet your child’s reading level.  These are great for building your learner’s reading stamina and non-fiction reading comprehension.  They follow Lexile leveling which you can convert to F&P and DRA here. Do you know what the best part is?  Parents and guardians can sign up for free.

3. Guided discovery

Educational researchers have found over the last several decades that the most effective learning strategies have nothing to do with massive textbooks or boring lectures.  Rather, guided discovery (or inquiry-based learning) centers on encouraging students to choose an aspect of a topic to research and present about.  In this case, the topic could be the Great Smoky Mountains, tourism, or even Dolly Parton. Your child would then choose an aspect of that topic to research in depth.  For example, if you decided to look at the Great Smoky Mountains, they could identify an animal, plant, or natural resource to research in depth.  Since you are in the area, you could visit the mountains, take photos of the chosen research topic, and conduct further research on the internet at your cabin.  They could present a short speech, write one (or several) paragraphs, or make a poster about their findings.

4. Map reading

One key skill that many of today’s students lack is the ability to successfully utilize a map and compass.  You can pick up an affordable compass from the dollar store and a map of the Smokies from one of the national park’s visitor centers (click here for hours and locations) .  All you need to do is head off on a hiking trail at your child’s fitness level.  As you and your family are hiking, your children can practice following the path of the trail on the map. They can also mark rest points and measure distances using the map scale and a ruler.  While definitely from the ‘old school’, it is a valuable life skill that could benefit your kids in the future.

Click here for a PDF of the map.

5. Mindfulness

My final tip is not educational per se, but it is nevertheless extremely important for children’s mental health and emotional development.  During your virtual learning vacation in the Smokies, make time to rest, breathe, and reflect on both the beauty and the pain of the past months.  Your kids, both young and old, need to process the massive changes our society has gone through.  While none of us have the solution to our current situation, intentionally being together as family definitely will not hurt. Who knows, it may even be the start of our healing.  Examples of appropriate mindfulness activities for your children might include drawing pictures of the mountains or clouds, sitting quietly by a creek with your toes in the water, and doing a simple exercise before bed like “Highs, Lows, and Glows” (instructions are found below). 

Virtual Learning Vacation
Practice mindfulness with a view.

Friendly Reminder

We here at Accommodations by Great Cabins in the Smokies hope that you have found this interview with Mr. N helpful.  While this school year may not be normal by any stretch of the imagination, it does provide new possibilities for students and families to learn in non-traditional formats.  We are committed to the health and safety of our guests and staff.  We conduct solely remote check-ins, have instituted enhanced sanitizing routines at all of our properties, and mandate mask usage within our office at all times.  When we all work together, we can achieve great things.

Below you will find Mr. N’s guide to the mindfulness exercise, “Highs, Lows, and Glows”

Before bed, sit down as a family and turn off all electronics and other distractions.  Each member of the family will retell their top “high, low, and glow” moments from the day, beginning with their “high”, or happiest, moment.  Afterwards, they say their “low”, or saddest, moment from the day.  Finally, for the “glow”, they tell one thing they learned today, whether that be something specific like a fact, or whether it be more general in nature, for example, that telling the truth is important.  After the family member has finished, the next person repeats the process with their “highs, lows, and glows” until everyone has spoken.

After a really rough first half of 2020, folks are slowly adapting to the ‘new normal’. Planning a vacation to Gatlinburg or Pigeon Forge this summer probably means looking for outdoor attractions since it is easier to socially distance outside. Yet, finding family-friendly outdoor attractions can be difficult (and even more so in a pandemic). We have curated a list of the top 3 outdoor attractions for you and your family this summer that are open and ready to welcome visitors. All of these businesses have instituted coronavirus protocols to protect guests’ safety during their visits.

Top 3 Outdoor Attractions:

#1. The Gatlinburg SkyLift Park

When you want to get some fresh air, what better way to do that than on top of a mountain? The Gatlinbury SkyLift Park is a great place to take your family to enjoy views of both the Great Smoky Mountains and downtown Gatlinburg. To protect the health of guests and staff, they have instituted stringent cleaning routines and require masks to be worn during visits. Make sure to purchase your tickets online to save time and better practice social distancing.

#2. Smoky Mountain Outdoors

If you are the water-loving type, you should definitely check out Smoky Mountain Outdoors and their rafting adventures this summer. Not only can you enjoy fresh air and take a swim in the river, you can get a solid arm workout, too. Their variety of rafting trips include options for beginners through experts. With regular cleaning procedures and mask requirements inside their retail store, Smoky Mountain Outdoors is a fantastic place to spend some time on your next vacation.

#3. Bluff Mountain Adventures

If the thought of riding through the woods on an ATV gets you excited, you should take a look at Bluff Mountain Rentals. Their rides allow you to have an exhilarating vacation while also practicing social distance. Be aware that they are a first-come, first-serve business; make sure to get there early to ensure you and your family can all ride. Their daily rides take place at 10:00, noon, 2:00, and 4:00. You can see their trail map here.

Stay Safe Out There

So, whether you and your family want to see the Smokies from a chairlift, paddle down a river, or power up a mountain on an ATV, there are many outdoor attractions in Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg waiting to be experienced. Make sure to stay safe during your visit by wearing a mask, sanitizing your hands frequently, and maintaining social distance. If you need lodging in the area, check out some of our mountain-side cabins and plan your vacation today.