“Sir, I don’t want to read the Diary of Anne Frank anymore…”

Years ago, I was teaching ‘The Second World War’ as part of the History curriculum with my class of ten and eleven year olds in Hackney, east London.

We were doing some lovely activities to help the children understand more about that era and the privations of war. We prepared meals made from ‘rations’; we dressed-up in 1940s clothes; we invited the then elderly local residents into school to listen to their live testimony of evacuation as children from London to various parts of the country.

I was also reading daily extracts from ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ – the story of a Jewish girl whose family had gone into hiding from the Nazis in an attic above the warehouse in Amsterdam where her father ran a business.

The children seemed to be loving every minute of it.

Then after about two weeks, one girl – I’m going to call her Sarah - came up to me and said:

“Sir. I don’t want to read the Diary of Anne Frank anymore…”

“Why not, love?” I asked.

“I don’t like Jews,” she said.

I tried not to show how disturbed I was by what she’d said. Perhaps I’d been naïve. I was in a school in east London that had a very mixed demographic - kids who were white, black and Asian; kids who were traditional ‘East Enders’ as well as of African, Caribbean, South Asian and Chinese heritage; kids who were Christians, Hindus, Muslims and being the East End of London, some Jewish too. There was even a girl of mixed-Jewish heritage in the class who was best friends with ‘Sarah’- the girl who made the remark. So her comment came as a very rude awakening.

Incidents like this will come to you too. Sometimes they are not only shocking, but they’re surprising as well, in the sense that - like Sarah - they’ll come from kids you’d least expect. They also might happen just at the moment that is most inopportune – someone drops a bombshell just at the point you are too busy to deal with it in any satisfactory way.

But respond to these incidents we must.

You may be so shocked that you don’t know what to say immediately. You may need time to think about it. The remark may be so odious that you are left speechless. You may judge it’s best to deal with the matter at another time and place. Such an incident might come in the middle of a lesson when you’re trying to prepare your class for an imminent SATs test or GCSE exam. You simply can’t drop everything to deal with it there-and-then, even if it is a potentially inflammatory issue.

Postponing your response until you’ve collected your thoughts (or your composure!) is a perfectly legitimate thing to do. As long as the child in question and the rest of the class know that you will definitely return to dealing with the issue at some point – that’s fine.

But return to it you must.

If you do have time to respond at that particular moment, what might you say and do?

The first thing you might do is challenge the opinion or the attitude and ask: “Why?”

But the tone you use in asking that question is absolutely crucial. If you say: “Why do you say that?” in a way that sounds defensive or displeased, or worse - annoyed or angry – then you’ll probably alienate the child.

You may even be inwardly angry, but if you were to say: “You mustn’t say things like that! It’s very naughty…” or “It’s wrong to say things like that…” you’ll fail to engage them and the child will simply walk away, bringing an end to any meaningful conversation. So your tone – however offended or cross you may feel underneath - is crucial in maintaining the child’s engagement.

However, I did ask ‘Sarah’ why she said what she’d said - because I really wanted to know.

I said to her, in as kindly a tone as I could muster:

“Why do you say that, love?”

Now, just pause for a moment...

What do you think her answer was? You’ve probably guessed it already. It’s predictable isn’t it?