Let’s Bake The World a Butter Place: Gender Roles and Minutes Gifts

A deep dive into the pros and cons of minutes, as well as the emerging pattern of gender roles in minutes gifts.

Reading Time: 10 minutes

The bell rings and you furtively glance around the room. Aha! There it is. A grocery bag brimming with Tupperware. Sure enough, the owner of this bag stands up and begins delivering Minutes. It’s your lucky day. A sugary gift is about to grace your lips.

Minutes gifts are a hallmark of many English classes at Stuyvesant. At the beginning of the month or semester, a calendar circulates throughout the class, and each student signs up to deliver Minutes. The Minutes themselves are a brief summary of the lesson from the day before—rarely exceeding three minutes. The student recounts the lesson’s “aim,” discussion questions, notable remarks, and, often, the “most brilliant moment” from the previous day—this aspect is subjective but usually is a particularly thought-provoking comment from a peer. Afterwards, the student reminds the class of the homework due that day and announces who has Minutes the next day. 

Finally. The boring part is over. What really makes Minutes appealing to many listeners is the segment that follows—the illustrious “gift.” Minutes-givers can bring in artwork, poems, news clippings, crochet animals, videos, etc. The bolder ones opt for dancing, reciting a monologue, playing a sonata on the violin, or delivering a rousing comedy routine. English teacher Eric Ferencz believes that Minutes gifts like these can foster a closer community among students of any grade. “I like Minutes gifts where students really show parts of themselves,” Ferencz explained. “I know a student brought in a chess award that he had won and told us a little story about it. These moments where you get a glimpse of who that person is outside of the context of the classroom is always incredibly important and valuable.” A creatively crafted Minutes gift or an object with personal sentiment might only be glimpsed by one’s peers for a couple of seconds as it is passed around the room. Nevertheless, it forges unlikely connections among classmates or offers exposure to potential new hobbies. 

 Still, as it is often quoted, “friends that eat together stay together”—many prefer receiving baked goods or other foods as Minutes gifts. Ferencz, like most students, frames the phenomenon more simply: “People love food. They love sugary treats. And I think that if you knew that you could create a Minutes gift which is going to get a positive reaction that easily; I wonder if that factors into it as well.” 

Given that students only give Minutes once or twice per semester, it is unsurprising that many pull out the stops when they are assigned to please their peers with the most anticipated, sugar-coated gifts. Additionally, students may be influenced by their own experiences of receiving food as Minutes gifts: “I like it when other people bring food to class too, so when it's my turn to give Minutes, I try to do that,” senior David Siniscalco said. “It's kind of nice to give to other people.” While some might argue that bringing snacks to school requires less thought and effort than sharing a passion or hobby, Siniscalco clarified that in Great Books, an AP English course for seniors, if a student chooses to bring in food, it cannot be store-bought.

Siniscalco learned to bake far before he entered the English classroom. “I cook and bake a lot at home. It's just something we do a lot culturally in my family. Everyone except my younger sister cooks at home. [...] And so during the summer with my grandmother, I would always help her in the kitchen. I just learned a lot of very cool dishes from her, and then I was like, ‘Oh, wait, like I can bake,’” he recalled. 

Senior Tiffany Hermawan described the joy she finds in baking: “I feel like it's a good stress reliever, especially if you have to knead it or something; you can just put your anger into it, which is funny because it's usually like, ‘Oh, this was baked with love,’” she said. 

While Siniscalco and Hermawan both find baking pleasurable, they have noticed unsettling trends regarding the gender of the students who do bake. Hermawan recounted the moment that she finally put this observation to words: “Somebody brought in brownies and I was eating, and I was just like, I don't think any of the guys have baked anything for Minutes. They usually do slideshows or bring in some kind of trinket or things like that. So I was just thinking about it and then Ms. [Katherine] Fletcher asked me to share my thoughts. So I just said what I was thinking and like the commotion that resulted was kind of crazy,” she described. 

Siniscalco echoed this sentiment. “In general, I feel like girls end up baking more than the guys at school,” he said. “I don't know if I remember any [other] guys who baked last semester in my Great Books class.”

So why is this the case? Hermawan shared her conjectures: “If you think about traditional gender stereotypes, it's always women who do the domestic stuff, the cooking and cleaning. They're seen as caretakers and they feed people and they're always making sure everybody is okay and stuff. So I feel like maybe it's that girls kind of feel a sense of responsibility because it's been instilled into them,” she said. Baking in particular, as opposed to cooking, has specifically notable gender undertones. “I feel like baking can just often be associated with femininity, even more than cooking and other forms of work. […] Sugary things are seen as kind of feminine especially if you're decorating stuff.” Hermawan clarified that her own intentions for baking stem from enjoyment not a sense of obligation. 

Siniscalco added on, “For some reason, guys just end up baking less because maybe they don't think of baking as a male hobby or like something they would generally do.”

Ferencz shares his speculation: “A lesson that I like to teach in my classes is the concept of learning gender. We call it gender socialization. That it's death by a thousand cuts; that it isn't a singular moment in our lives. Sometimes it can be very large moments, but most of the time it's these little micro moments that teach us. It's just being inundated by experiences where maybe in my home, at my parents’ home, at family's homes, when I'm watching movies and media, that I'm just consistently seeing female characters or female people in this position of cooking food. And so after 16, 17, 18 years of my life of consistently getting these messages over and over again, it's just buried in my subconscious at that point,” he said.

Students aren’t the only ones who notice these patterns; their parents do as well. “My mom was getting mad at me for baking again because I started at like 7:00 P.M. and that means I’m gonna finish really late. But I was just like, ‘Well, I have Minutes and you know, I wanna bring these in, and she’s like, ‘Well, what do the boys bring in for a Minutes?’” Hermawan said. 

English class in particular offers a unique environment for these issues to spring up. “The tables are kind of situated in a way where people are looking at each other and you’re interacting more than you would in a typical class,” Hermawan explained.

The physical arrangement of the classroom, combined with the discussion-based nature of English courses, lends itself to a stronger feeling of familiarity between students. “English is probably the only class where I can confidently say I know everybody’s name. […] So I do feel like there's more of a sense of community and I think that makes me more willing to spend time to bring stuff to the class. So maybe if it were calculus, people would be more inclined to study for math exams than to bring big stuff to school for their class,” Siniscalco said. 

Still, Minutes does not necessarily create this sense of community but rather enhances it by the practice. In fact, some Stuyvesant students may never find themselves in a Minutes-giving classroom. English teacher Megan Weller has never implemented Minutes into her curriculum. She cites its time consumption as the main factor for her decision. “Before teaching at Stuyvesant, I taught at a big high school called Norman Thomas High School, where I [...] had a block schedule, which means I taught those students for two periods in a row. Then I taught at a small high school in Brooklyn called High School for Public Service, and I had hour-long classes. So coming to Stuyvesant and moving to 41-minute classes was the least amount of time I had ever had to get through a lesson. Making that adjustment was already difficult, and although I knew a little bit about Minutes and had observed some classes with Minutes, upon getting hired here, as I was adjusting my lessons to fit 41 minutes, I did not see how to fit it in,” Weller explained. 

Another reason that Weller refrains from participating in Minutes is her concern regarding food in the classroom. “I’m not a fan of food in the classroom either. Food allergies scare me,” she said. “And there are roaches. There are mice.”

While Ferencz used to include Minutes in his lesson plan, he recently discontinued the practice. “I found over time that I was more disappointed with the effort that went into Minutes than what I expected or what I wanted, and I eventually let go of the practice. I think also being on the ninth floor is not the best when it comes to Minutes. [...] The time-consuming act of getting from the first or second floor to the ninth floor really is a Minutes killer,” he said. Ferencz also grew disillusioned with the quality of Minutes gifts. “[Many of the freshmen were] so overwhelmed with work that they just found the easiest thing they possibly could [...] When seniors were overwhelmed with college stuff, the quality would go down. When the nice weather would start hitting, the quality would go down,” he described. 

As to Ferencz’s attitude toward baking for Minutes gifts, he believes that its merit heavily depends on the effort put in. “[Someone] going to buy a bag of chocolate [...] doesn't feel like a lot of effort. I also feel like it's a little unfair because if you come from a family where you can have some extra dollars to buy chocolate, that's not the same situation that everyone else comes from,” he said. Aside from financial barriers, Ferencz wonders how effective baking is to reveal insights about students. “The way that I always perceived it was that the Minutes gift was in some way supposed to give us some sort of insight about the student, so if the only insight we're getting is like, ‘Oh, they also like to make sweets,’ I don't know how much we're learning there,” he said. 

Ferencz believes that the poor-quality Minutes gifts can result when teachers don’t have enough time to provide proper “scaffolding” for the assignment: “Essentially, if I'm going to expect students to do something, I need to introduce the steps that lead up to how to do those things. And so I think that a lot of the frustrations with Minutes gifts for me came from the fact that I never thought to scaffold; I never thought to talk to students about, like, this is how you present something to the classroom, this is how you write a script, this is how you synthesize something interesting in your life and make it into something that's presentable,” he explained.

This scaffolding may be especially necessary given that Minutes presentations can push students, especially freshmen, out of their comfort zones. However, this feature of the practice creates an even greater impetus for the implementation of Minutes in the first place. “[Minutes is] a good way for students to get good speaking skills in front of the classroom,” Ferencz acknowledged. “So I think that when a person can speak up and speak clearly in front of a group of people, it really teaches them how to speak up for themselves in other situations and circumstances.” Still, Minutes is far from the only way in which students can gain public speaking skills: “Classroom participation [is another opportunity to improve public speaking skills.] [...] Creating situations where students have time to prepare their responses, where students have to give responses that don't have a right or wrong answer. It takes the edge off of there being some sort of negative consequence to giving that wrong answer, the fear of sounding stupid, or the fear of saying something not in a way that's as well expressed as another peer,” Ferencz said. 

Though the development of a classroom community and these individual skills are not dependent on whether a teacher implements Minutes, Weller does miss the opportunity to get to know each of her students on a personal level. “When I get jealous of Minutes is when a student is like, playing the clarinet or doing a dance or even giving a presentation about robotics or something. Some aspect of their life that I don't get to see in English class or know a lot about, that community building and getting to know more about the students, that would be cool,” she said. “[I’ll say to] Dr. [Emily] Moore, ‘Oh, I have Henry this year’ and Dr. Moore will be like, ‘Oh, Henry will dance for Minutes,’ and I'll be like, ‘Oh, but I don't do Minutes.’ So I'll never see Henry dance unless I go to SING! or something. And that's when I do miss it and miss out on it.” Some ways that teachers foster community-building without Minutes include daily announcements, sharing days, and do-now’s. Other ways to modify Minutes include posting a recap of the previous day’s lesson on Google Classroom, having Minutes only once a week, or making the practice voluntary for students.

So, what’s the verdict? Should Minutes gifts still have a place in the Stuyvesant community? Do they perpetuate gender roles? While the future remains uncertain, Siniscalco provides an action step that students can take: “More guys should also start bringing baked stuff to school.” You got that?