Getting to Know Us: Interview With Virginia Loh-Hagan

Posted on January 27th, 2014 by Pam Goldman

If you know any IFL fellows, you probably know them through the units they design and the training they lead. Of course there's so much more to know. That's the point of our new Getting to Know Us interviews. We start the series by featuring the newest member of our ELA team, Virginia Loh-Hagan. She talks about many interesting things including the historical fiction book she recently published, a potential piano-hoarding problem, and her work at the Institute. Enjoy!

Virginia Loh-Hagan

Why did you want to join IFL?

IFL (in addition to LRDC and University of Pittsburgh) has a reputation for being a powerhouse of innovation and research-based school practices. So many scholars and such important work came out of here. It's so awesome that I get to be a part of that. Plus, I’ve always wanted to be part of a think tank. It just sounds really cool.

What have you learned since joining IFL?

I've learned so many things since joining IFL. Most importantly, I've learned the importance of socializing intelligence; I have really taken to the notion that together, we get smarter. Also, I've become a much better curriculum developer. I thought I was pretty good when I came to IFL and now after being apprenticed and mentored by Donna Bickel and my ELA team, I realize how much more I have to learn. I like putting myself in situations in which I am intellectually challenged. I feel my brain getting bigger.

What are your favorite things about working for IFL?

I absolutely love developing curriculum. It is an intense, time-consuming process and I love every minute of it. As I'm working on the unit, I am deeply learning more about content and pedagogy. I also love that we are given the time and resources to think, to write, and to research. I'm given the opportunity to develop and enhance my content area expertise, which is really important to me.

What are some surprises you have discovered about working for IFL?

Pittsburgh is cold. I love that I am able to live in San Diego while working for IFL; however, this means that I'm traveling to Pittsburgh every several weeks. My IFL colleagues have teased me about not having a winter coat and wearing flip flops in the middle of winter. I was born and raised in northern Virginia and then lived in Charlottesville, Virginia for school so I know about snow and seasons. But, having lived in San Diego since 1999, I've become acclimated to palm trees and sunshine. What can I say? I'm a California girl.

Looking back at your career in education, what assets do you bring to IFL?

Having been a K-8 teacher, I can relate to the daunting responsibilities of being a teacher. This experience gives me leverage when I am providing professional development to teachers in various parts of the nation. I've taught in urban schools where the majority of the students were English language learners, ethnic minorities, eligible for free or reduced lunch, etc. So, I totally "get it." (I would have been a much better teacher if I had known the things I know now!) Also, having taught in higher education/teacher education programs, I have an understanding of how teachers are being prepared for the profession. Furthermore, my experience as a program chair for an online university in addition to my experience teaching in online settings gives me a strong skill set in online education.

What are you currently reading about education?

I try to keep up with my periodicals like Education Week, Fast Company, etc., and various journals and blogs from professional organizations. I sign up for tons of listservs and newsletters. My email inbox gets pretty crazy! Also, I am a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell; I’m reading his new book. Of course, he isn't in the education field but I like how he takes mundane observations and then puts them together to be analyzed and perceived in a different way. I think we need to do more out-of-the-box thinking in education if we are to be viable in the 21st century and beyond. (I also follow Lisa Delpit, Rudine Sims Bishop, Paolo Freire...the list grows every day.)

Did you grow up with a lot of books?

I grew up in a single-parent household so I didn't own many books but I went to the library on a weekly basis—I still do! In fact, I love libraries so much my husband and I were married in a library. I also hold a mayoral-appointed library board of trustee position for my local library system. Currently, my house is jam-packed with books and shelves. Basically, I am a big nerd.

What would we find on your bookshelf that would surprise me?

Dog-training books. Anyone who knows me well knows that I lack the discipline to train dogs. Anyone who knows my dogs know that they lack any discipline at all. I love my dogs but they have completely taken over…I’m not sure of exactly when I lost control but I did. I've been recording a lot of their antics on my facebook site. In fact, my dog, Woody who is the naughtier dog, will be the subject of one of my future books; I’m working on a manuscript about his cheeky shenanigans.

What inspired you to write children's books?

As a scholar of Asian-American children's literature (my dissertation was a qualitative study on the cultural authenticity of Asian-American children’s literature), I saw a need for more books in this genre. PAPER SON (Sleeping Bear Press, 2013) co-authored by Helen Foster James and illustrated by Wilson Ong is my newest book. It's an important story to tell—many Chinese-Americans were processed at Angel Island and many Chinese-Americans today are descendants of the paper son system. Yet, not many people know about Angel Island or about paper sons. Like with all my books, I’ve enjoyed doing the book tours, school visits, booksignings, etc. It’s exciting to interact with people who also love good stories.

Angel Island
Paper Son

Why is historical fiction important in a CCSS-climate?

PAPER SON is a historical fiction book. We did a lot of research for the book (reading, interviewing, visiting Angel Island, etc.) as the narrative was based on factual events and lived experiences. As such, this is a great way for students to be engaged and hooked with the story while being inspired to learn about the facts. Students can analyze how authors of historical fiction use primary and secondary sources to create their content. In fact, we have an IFL unit entitled "Analysis of Historical Fiction: Paper Son" which I highly recommend buying along with the book. (There's my plug!)

What are some interesting projects you are working on right now?

All my projects are nerdy. First, I've been taking piano lessons as an adult for five years now. My goals are to be able to play Chopin and the theme song to "Top Gun." Second, I've recently assumed the position of Cover Editor for The California Reader, which is the peer-reviewed journal for the California Reading Association. Third, I'm serving on various children's book award committees, which means I get to read books! And of course, I'm working on several other manuscripts.

What are five fun facts about you?

Once again, I'm going to provide even more evidence of my nerdiness.


First, I love "The Sound of Music." I visited Salzburg and did the tour. I even took German for five years in middle and high school because that's what the Von Trapps spoke.

Second, I have a bit of a piano-hoarding problem. I currently have 3 pianos in my house; I used to have four but my husband made me sell one because he was afraid I was going to be on that hoarding show.

Third, I love hot dogs and am on a quest to find the perfect hot dog. So far, my favorite is JapaDog. (However, my favorite meal is a tray of Maryland blue crabs with old bay seasoning and butter. But, a quest for crabs doesn’t sound as appealing as a quest for the perfect hot dog.)

Fourth, I knit, crochet, and cross-stitch, which I like to do while watching TV. According to Netflix data analytics, I love British dramas and violent TV shows. (Also, I want to learn how to quilt.)

Fifth, I like to collect Virginia state quarters, Anne of Green Gables books, city glitter-globes, candlestick holders with handles, secretary desks, and piano trinkets.