Debbie Sonu an International Curriculum Scholar Review by Jodi M. Baine for EDU 5265 Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

Debbie Sonu an International Curriculum Scholar Review by Jodi M. Baine for EDU 5265 Internationalization of Curriculum Studies

“You speak English so well!”  This phrase was one that Debbie Sonu had become all too familiar with growing up as the child of Korean immigrants in the United States of America.  Although she attended English schools and was brought up within the American education system, she still experienced this kind of institutionalized racism based solely on her appearance.

Her experiences with social justice, often deeply embedded in schools because of the pervasiveness of White/male/Eurocentric perspectives, Sonu sought to become an elementary school teacher to help change some of these discourses.  Having taught for four years in Los Angeles, she then went on to complete a Master of Education at the University of California (2001) and a Master of Education at Colombia University (2007).  She most recently completed her Doctorate in Education at Colombia University (2009).

Currently, Sonu works as an Assistant Professor of Social Studies in the Department of Curriculum and Teaching at Hunter College, City University of New York.  Her research interests and published works centre on the themes of urban schooling, social justice education, curriculum, and identity.

1. Social Justice Education.

“Through curriculum design, teachers urge students to consider political silencing and cultural marginalization, not only as they appear in schools, but also as an integral part of the social condition from which emerges a sense of self and identity”(2009a:13).

Themes of social justice education dominate the work of Sonu.  It is clear from her writings that exposing students to issues of racism, ableism, heterosexism, etc. and engaging them in dialogue about these injustices or inequities are important to her.  “Classrooms are too often sites of cultural and social reproduction,” Sonu explains, “and they must be examined carefully for the ways that they produce and perpetuate injustice” (2010a:238).  Even when social justice education has become a trend in educational circles, Sonu sees the schools themselves as continuing to perpetuate inequality.

In an article examining three case studies of beginning teachers’ experiences of implementing social justice pedagogy, Sonu documented the issues they faced in trying to enact critical pedagogy.  These obstacles included a lack of time due to preparation for standardized tests, the restrictions of a mandated curriculum which sometimes worked against social justice education, and the difficulty of behaviour management when discussing contentious issues. “Most salient is the current context of standards and accountability in schools,” Sonu concedes, “where teachers face pressures of mandated curricula, inflexible daily schedules, and imposed test preparation” (2010a:244).  Given that I have been teaching most recently in a Grade 3 classroom, I have often felt the pressures of preparing my students for EQAO testing.  Although I like to think that I engage them in discussions of social justice education whenever possible, I am very aware that ‘covering curriculum’ and preparing my students for success on standardized tests sometimes leave no time for true social justice education.

Despite these barriers, Sonu found that beginning teachers still tried to engage their students, including elementary-aged children, in discussions of injustice and suppression, harking back to work of Freire (1970).  Even still, when teachers reflected on their implementation of social justice education, they perceived themselves as not good enough.  Thus, Sonu recommends that preservice education programs allow teacher candidates to discuss the struggles they may face in trying to implement social justice education and to provide opportunities for self-reflection that focus on what students have learned/accomplished as opposed to short-comings in their teaching practice (2010a).

Sonu conducted a project in the summer of 2010 on New York City elementary school teachers who actively attempt to implement social justice education in their classrooms.  She captures these enlightening moments in video vignettes available at

2. The Institutionalizing of Social Justice Activism.

“I call for a return to the principle values from which a social justice agenda arose, less hampered by the dysfunctions of traditional schooling both ideologically and materially, and more awakened to the struggle for greater freedom, love, strength, understanding, respect, and awareness in, of, and for each other, in a shared struggle for a more capacious and nonviolent world” (2009a:246).

Many of Sonu’s most recent publications focused on the difficulties teachers and students encounter when trying to engage with a social justice education that is institutionalized and obligatory.  She criticizes the current neoliberalism of schools which encourages “meritocratic individualism, personal responsibility, and schooling for global economic competition (2012:244).  It has been so refreshing to read the work of a scholar who shares my love of social justice education and my disdain for the standards movement in education.  Through her research for her doctoral dissertation, Sonu conducted interviews and observations of an advisory class at a high school in the Brooklyn borough which places social action projects at the centre of the students’ high school education.

In her earlier work, Sonu felt a sense of pride and excitement when walking the halls of this high school, seeing images of Che Guevara and listening to heated debates on the use of the “N” word and school surveillance.  “I basked in the beauty of what I knew was social justice teaching,” she recalls, “and wrote down these examples with uninhibited fervor. With predetermined conclusions in hand, I maintained unwavering fidelity that this was, to my belief, what social justice needed to look like in urban schools” (2009a, 6).  During her final interviews with students, however, Sonu came to realize that social justice education was not authentic or valuable when it was imposed by the school.

Although she commends teachers for seeking to raise awareness of issues of inequity and injustice, Sonu found that “teachers and students play an intricate dance with ideology in which their distinct passions for a more just world struggle against counteracting institutional demands and expectations” (2012:41).  In an age of accountability and standards, social justice guided by students’ own thinking and not-restricted by timelines or grading of completed projects was difficult.  “When activism becomes an advisory requisite, leveraged by academic grades,” Sonu explains, “students are placed at the crux of a theoretical and material struggle, where the rhetoric of resistance and social justice are then forced to reckon with the operations of schooling” (2009c:99).

Several students that Sonu interviewed indicated that they completed social action projects, such as one critiquing the intense school security practices put in place by the New York City Police Department, solely to get the grade and graduate, regardless of whether or not they were fully invested in the cause.  Students did not see that their own individual actions, like standing up for a friend who was being bullied, as social justice; instead, they equated social justice with a forced project dictated by the school.  Sonu suggests that what is truly needed is “a relationship of endearing trust, where teachers need to allow students to decide, or realize, within their own contexts and through their own histories, their agentive role in the changing world, knowing that such endeavors are always unpredictable and impossible to deliberately teach” (2009c:102).  Instead of forcing class-wide projects on students, teachers need to work on developing critical thinkers who enact social justice on their own terms.  How is this best done?  I believe Sonu could truly help educators by offering alternatives or possibilities for the proper implementation of social justice education.

3. Identity.

“Moving away from humanist assumptions of dueling dualities in the formation of identity, we seek a place that collapses social and temporal borders and transgresses geographical and physical sites” (2009b:143).

Sonu’s experiences as a child and throughout her life as feeling not entirely American and not entirely Korean have led her to theorize on the development of identity.  Her initial internal conflict with identity was sparked by an incident in her elementary schooling when she refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance. In this instance, she began to realize that “schools powerfully communicate hidden messages that promulgate Whiteness, standard English, social norms, acceptability, and marginalization” (2009b:148).  Glancing over the Ontario curriculum, this too becomes apparent.  Where are the voices of the First Nations people colonized by the Europeans in the Social Studies curriculum?  Are the variable identities of new immigrants and refugees honoured by current standardized testing practices?

Sonu refers to the term “geographical displacement” to describe the journey people go through in the construction of a transnational identity, one in which they often feel like a “perpetual foreigner”.  In her own experience, she felt as though she did not fit into binary labels or racial categories; instead, she advocates for carving out a “third space” in which identity is not static or easily defined.

The autobiography she presents of trying to find herself both in the United States of America and in a trip to Korea leads her to conclude that identity is fluid and ever-changing, echoing theories of cosmopolitanism (Spisak, 2009). Sonu sees her own identity as a “hybrid of my cultural origins and my lived experiences” (2009b:158).  Rather than enforcing stereotypical labels on students, Sonu indicates that curriculum must work at breaking racial barriers to acknowledge a multiplicity of identities, rather than to “quiet the intricate stories within” (2009b:159).


Sonu’s work on identity, social justice education, and the problems inherent in institutionalized social justice education provide an impetus for educators to sit back and reflect. In an educational era where “performance objectives, data sheets, grids, and charts, [are] believed to somehow make teaching and learning more efficient and manageable” (2012:246), helping students become critical thinkers who oppose inequity and enact social transformation is fraught with difficulty.  In the end, we must ask ourselves, what is most important for our students: to achieve well on standardized tests in order to compete in the global, economic market or to become critical thinkers with an interest in social justice and change?  How should we best engage our students in social justice education and identity formation?


Sonu, D. (2009a). (in)Justice for all?: Brooklyn youth and the question of social justice (Doctoral Dissertation). Colombia University, New York.

Sonu, D. & Moon, S. (2009b). Re-Visioning into third space: Autobiographies on losing home and homeland. Journal of Curriculum and Pedagogy, 6(2), 142-162.

Sonu, D. (2009c). Social justice must be action: Obligatory duty and the institutionalizing of activism in schools. Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, 25(2), 90-104.

Sonu, D. et al. (2010a). From ideal to practice and back again: Beginning teachers teaching for social justice. Journal of Teacher Education, 61(3), 237-247.

Sonu, D. (2010b). Social Issues in the Elementary Classroom: Short films on New York City elementary school teachers broaching social issues with young children. Retrieved from

Sonu, D. (2012). Illusions of compliance: Performing the public and hidden transcripts of social justice education in neoliberal times. Curriculum Inquiry, 42(2), 240-259.

Spisak, S. (2009).The evolution of a cosmopolitan identity: Transforming culture. Current Issues in Comparative Education, 12(1), 86-91.