This was a bit more radical because I completely changed the titlebar, squeezing and squishing it to make it thinner. This was mainly to allow more room on the page above the fold (the part that shows when the page first opens), but it also gave me an intriguing problem to work on on a wet Saturday afternoon!
However, it was still a bit blocky and text-based and I wanted something more fun for the visitors, and more flexible for me to be able to announce new things on the site (plus I just fancied a bit of a change), so this version didn't last for the whole of the year.
January: I added one hundred and one new games to English Banana.com for the spring term.
31st January: Er, what happened here? Before the revamped home page shown above, I had made this home page using Word 2003, and it certainly looked different. Quite a departure from its predecessors. I thought that it looked OK (maybe I was just sick of the old designs), but a few weeks in I discovered that - being a Word 2003 web page - it wasn't supported by Firefox, a browser that was gaining in popularity. In fact, none of the home page links worked in Firefox! I had been trying to be smart, but it was back to the drawing board, and back to the old faithful HTML coding that I knew, loved, and - more importantly - understood.
10th February: With the demise of the English Banana.com Google Group, and the Facebook group not yet off the ground, I needed somewhere else where I could post news and features. Lots of other sites had blogs, so it was a natural step for English Banana.com to have one. It launched with my first post on 10th February 2008, where I advertised the launch of the ELT Resource Bank free download (more of which below):
"Download 1,000+ Free Printable Worksheets for English Lessons - in a Single Zip File!"
I used free software from Word Press to make the blog and was very pleased with the results, although sometimes it wouldn't work when I wanted to add a new post, or it would do something unexpected for no apparent reason. It was much better than using the Google Group, although this time, mindful of what had happened with the spammer, I didn't allow any interaction or commenting on the blog from visitors. It was a bulletin board for news, but also a place to post original material, like this quiz from the end of February: How Did You Feel When...? (English Idioms of Mood/Emotion - .pdf).
I also used it to promote other things of interest to ELT students and teachers, such as the amazing free online "Open Yale" courses ("Become a Student at Yale University - FOR FREE!"). I was able to add multimedia, for example videos from YouTube, and build quizzes around other people's work, e.g. music videos, which I hadn't done before on the main English Banana.com site. The blog sent out feeds to feed aggregators, which in theory should have resulted in more visitors to the posts, but the number of people using the blog started off very small, and has remained small. These days the blog still exists, but it's less important as a place for announcements, largely due to: a) the budding group on Facebook, and b) the new mailing list that I started in the summer of 2008 (see below).
February: By the end of 2007 I had put everything online for free download - or so I told myself. All of the books, all of the worksheets - even 201 brand new - NEW! - worksheets. I felt that with this and the copying licence I had done everything I could to make the materials freely available, but I knew deep down that I was still hanging onto something: the ELT Resource Bank CD-ROM, which I was selling for £25.95 a time. This was all of the materials on one handy CD-ROM. I tried to tell myself that nobody would want to download such a large .zip file (138 MB), but I knew that people were already downloading larger files than this - e.g. movies, or albums - and I set about preparing this final, previously unavailable, product for free download. Mindful that not all English Banana.com visitors have fast broadband, or even any broadband, I made it available in two versions: a complete download (one .zip folder), and a "Download Folders Separately" version, which enabled visitors to download each of the twelve folders, and manually put them together into one single folder.
After this, I really felt that I couldn't do any more. All of the English Banana.com products were online, free to anybody to download, without membership or fee, and governed by a copying licence that would allow people to not only use them in class and at home but also to pay their expenses in teaching classes. What else...?
March: Discussions began regarding launching a charity that would support and expand the work of English Banana.com. First we had to decide on the aims and scope of the charity, then begin finding trustees.
May: I added fifty new games to English Banana.com for the summer term.
1st May: Talk a Lot Elementary Book 1 (ISBN-13: 9780955701511) was published. Since October 2007 I had been teaching a weekly English class in Łukta, a small town 30km from where we lived in Poland. I was writing material for it each week based on different topics and had started to develop a new way of practising tenses, using speaking and listening skills, and memory, called sentence blocks. By the end of the ten week course I realised that I had enough raw material for a complete course book. I hadn't set out to write a course book, but felt that it would sit very well with the site, because people would be able to use the materials, along with the provisions of the Copying Licence, to run their own courses. Compared to the earlier three books of fairly random worksheets, I was able to offer something immediately useful: a teacher could just pick up the book and start planning their course - with full instructions and answers. As usual, the instructions and answers sections took the longest to write!
By the publication date of Elementary Book 1 I had already finished a draft of Book 2, having developed the material with another group of students in the same school between February and May 2008. Book 2 was much easier to put together, because I already had the template to follow from Book 1. I have taught material from these books in both Poland and the UK, with teenagers and adults from a range of different countries, and have been delighted with the positive responses that I've had. It's straightforward to develop a third book - the same template, just using different topics - and I would like to encourage teachers to develop their own versions of Talk a Lot. Choose a topic; choose some vocabulary words; write some discussion questions; plan some role plays; make everything culturally relevant to your teaching situation, and off you go...
This is from the introduction:
"Talk a Lot is a great new way to learn spoken English, and quite a departure from the standard ELT course book. Instead of spending hours reading and writing, students have the opportunity to engage in challenging and fun speaking and listening activities with their friends ..."
"The Talk a Lot course objectives are very simple:
I have been pleased to discover by using the books with different kinds of students in different countries that there really is a lot of mileage for teaching spoken English - stress, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, and so on - in the Talk a Lot materials.
May: I put Casale Media ads on the site for the first time. Why have two ad companies on the site generating income, when you can have three? That was my reasoning, and it has worked out well so far - fingers crossed!
In June 2008 I discovered the new document-sharing site, Scribd.com. It was billed as "the YouTube for documents" and it has been a terrific place to share English Banana.com worksheets and books. In just five months (to November 2008) more than 100,000 of my worksheets and books had been accessed, with the most popular being the books - and Talk a Lot Elementary Book 1 the most accessed by a mile. This site has given English Banana.com a real boost in the search engines because of how often they index Scribd.com, and of course, the unique English Banana.com Copying Licence meant that there weren't any complicated copyright issues surrounding putting my work onto Scribd, as there would be for other publishers and authors. There has been huge growth in page views and visitors to English Banana.com this year (2008), and I attribute this in no small part to the tremendous opportunity presented by Scribd.com.
June: Still keen to communicate - "to have a conversation with" - my site visitors, I began an experiment (trial period) with a mailing list provider called Constant Contact. Their software and interface weren't exactly to my liking, but PEOPLE JOINED the list! This encouraged me to look around for something that I liked better, and I found iContact, which I have stuck with since then. Hundreds of people have joined the list so far, and it's been a good way to communicate news and generate clicks to new resources, as well as to provide regular lessons by email to some of the people who are the most interested in the site. I'm happy to have this option, as well as the blog, and the group on Facebook. All effective means of targeting the keenest English Banana.com site visitors.
July: I made this site to promote my private business in Poland. It was the first time I had written a site in a foreign language (Polish)! I collaborated with my wife over the content, and tried to make the most efficient use of the space above the fold. (More efficient use than I had ever made with English Banana.com pages.) You can visit this site online, if you want to, at http://www.studyenglishpl.com.
August: It was the most radical re-design yet (apart from that bizarre yellow effort at the beginning of the year), but I felt pleased with it. It had links to all of the best content on the site above the fold, along with two picture blocks, on the left, that I could change any time that I wanted to announce new features on the site.
Two important features were back, back, BACK above the fold - the search box and the "Add as home page..." link. They were important because the search box helped visitors to quickly find what they were looking for, and the "home page" bit encouraged them to keep on returning time and again. I should have featured these above the scroll all along, but... oh well, web building is a continuous learning process!
I felt that English Banana.com looked more fun and welcoming at first glance than ever before, and if you scrolled down you could still find all of the links to download the books... And if you kept on scrolling down you could find a distant relative of the menu that was first on the home page way back in 2005 (see above). How things had changed since then!
August: I added fifty new games to English Banana.com ready for the autumn term.
1st September: A big milestone: more than 100,000 free English Banana.com books had been downloaded since 19th July 2007.
1st September: Talk a Lot Elementary Book 2 (ISBN-13: 9780955701528) was published (see above). This book was dedicated to my wife and daughter (as was the first volume), as well as to Sylwia and Piotr, two friends and students from the original Łukta courses, who had really encouraged me by their positive responses to the embryonic Talk a Lot materials.
27th September: By September 2008 I had moved back to the UK for a few months - partly to have a break from life in Poland - and was teaching English to teenagers and adults at a private school in Cambridge on a three month contract. I decided to try to set up a free English course, and advertised on community site Gumtree.com to see if any students would be interested (see ad above). I really didn't think that anybody would reply, but was pleasantly surprised when enough students responded for me to be able to start a course within two weeks. Here are extracts from some of the emails that I got in response to the ad:
"Good morning! I'm K. from Korea. Is it really free? Is it related religion? I really want this class. If you don't mind, could you send mail about my question for me? Thank you." - from K.
"Hi, I am 46 old lady from Poland and interested in learn English for free in Cambridge." - from L.T.
"Hi Matt! I'm a young French professional working in Cambridge. Are your courses still on going? If yes, can you give me the details concerning the time, date and location! Thanks a lot." - from V.
"Hi, my name is L., i would be interested on this english lessons for my mother, she is 52 years and already has done a pair of courses, could you please send some information about it? I will be really appreciated." - from L.
"Hi matt, I'm V. from China. I want to improve my English especially the oral English. I'm interested with your class. Could you tell me more details about your class? Hope to hear from you soon. Thanks," - from V.
I arranged the first lesson for Saturday 27th September, at a small coffee shop above a bookshop in Cambridge city centre. It was free for us to meet there - which minimised my costs - and I obtained permission from staff working there before the first meeting. I was expecting around eight students, and three students came, although others expressed apologies via email that they hadn't been able to make it. At the next lesson the following Saturday eight students attended, including people who had read about the course on Gumtree.com and came along on the off-chance. I was using Talk a Lot materials each week to teach vocabulary, word and sentence stress, and for students to practise discussion questions together. There was a nice atmosphere and the students enjoyed it, although I insisted that they bought a coffee, if they could, to support the coffee shop who had provided the free venue.
At the same time I was looking for a more professional venue. I found a church hall where the hire cost was £34 per week for two hours (plus public liability insurance costs), with a minimum booking of 10 weeks. I wanted to book it, but held back because of the costs involved and because I wasn't sure about the commitment level of the students - or how long I would be in the UK. Also, I didn't want the free course to be "related religion". I wanted it to be free, without any strings attached. A genuine good offer. Having gained eight students on the course - which was enough for the venue at the coffee shop - we took up two tables there! - I didn't renew the ad on Gumtree, because I felt that we had enough students. On the third Saturday lesson (11th October) only three students attended. After that, for work reasons, I had to change the day to a Wednesday, and at around the same time I went back to Poland for a weekend, so the next lesson was on Wednesday 29th October. The Wednesday switch meant changing venues too, and we moved to a different coffee shop (opposite King's College Chapel, on King's Parade), where we had even less space. Only two students came - one who had been to every lesson so far, and a new student.
The following Wednesday two students came - again, the same guy who had attended all of the lessons, and a different new student, his friend. I felt that the course had really run out of steam: with no suitable venue, only one regular attendee, and my contract coming to an end within a few weeks, it was time to "knock it on the head" - i.e. conclude the course.
For me it was a good experiment, which taught me that it's possible to put on an English course using very few resources, and goodwill (plus money for a coffee and a cake). Had I stayed in Cambridge more permanently I would have booked and paid for a suitable venue, and advertised the course - or even courses! - more widely. Clearly there was an appetite for free English courses, in a city where so much learning takes place, but is either expensive, or comes with strings attached - for example, the English classes run by churches as outreach events to attract foreign students to join their congregations (see the rather wary email from K., above).
Why should the classes be free? I taught only ten hours of free lessons in Cambridge, but if I'd charged the going rate I could have made £200 from these hours - more if I'd charged a higher rate. I figured that I was already getting paid a decent salary to teach twenty-one hours per week (which was full-time) in a good private school. It didn't seem much to give away two "free" hours (2 x 45 minute lessons). After all, I had already been paid for my full-time job, so my needs had already been met. It wasn't a sacrifice for me to meet this class on a Saturday morning, or Wednesday evening. In fact, being new to Cambridge, it was a pleasure to meet some new people - and the students were all very nice people. But why shouldn't the students pay to learn English? For this experiment, I didn't apply means-testing or other criteria to work out whether the students on my free course could or could not afford to pay. Perhaps I should have. But I would guess that of the many thousands of foreigners living in Cambridge who don't speak English as a first language - working in hotels, kitchens, shops, and bars, among other places - there are plenty who just can't afford weekly English lessons priced at the going rate of £40 for 90 minutes. I met some of them.
1st November: The first official meeting of trustees from English Banana Trust takes place in Norfolk, UK.
My latest website first went online on Wednesday 19th November 2008. On its first day online it got 1,000 visits - all clicking through from English Banana.com. The name itself is a pun: "Study Paws" = "Study Pause", because the site is intended to be a place where students can hang out online during breaks from their lessons and enjoy high-quality educational games, quizzes, and activities. On the site's "About" page I wrote:
"This site can help students enjoy their study break in an educational and motivational way - by playing games, solving puzzles, and achieving learning goals, then clicking through the links on each page to find out more. With each activity or game we have included hand-picked links to trusted sites which students can visit to learn more about the topics or ideas raised. We believe that learning should be fun and interactive, and that it's possible for learning and fun not only to co-exist but to overlap and integrate, thanks to the magic of the internet!"
I don't know whether this new site will sink or swim, but it's really fun trying something new - putting it out there into cyber space, and seeing whether it finds an audience. You can visit this site online at http://www.studypaws.com.
25th November: Another big milestone (more quickly reached): over 100,000 English Banana.com documents had been accessed on Scribd.com since June 2008.
7th December 2008: The second version of the English Banana.com Copying Licence came into effect. Having written two dedicated course books, I realised that I ought to add something to the original licence making it explicit that people could run their own courses using English Banana.com materials, without paying anything. This became the Free Licence to Run Courses. At the same time I wanted to update the Copying Licence, and to give away that which I was still holding onto - namely the right to use the materials for commercial gain. Thus came about the Free Copying Licence. Notice how I have used the word "Free" in the names of both licences this time, to make it even clearer what the offer meant. I took away all restrictions on who could use the materials, and what they could use them for, and even explicitly stated that people could use the materials without giving any credit. I had been getting emails throughout 2008 from people unclear about whether they could use the materials in their school, or training provider. Of course, I emailed back and said that yes they could, but it puzzled me that people still felt that they had to ask for further permission.
People seemed to be generally unclear about the terms in the first licence where I stated that: "You may not repackage and resell English Banana.com materials in order to generate a business profit." Naturally, most schools and training providers need to make a business profit, so perhaps herein lay the anxiety for potential users of the licence. I decided to do away with this restriction, as well as the other two on the first licence, and replace it with the more catch-all: "In short, if you can use English Banana.com materials in any way, this licence gives you permission to use them." I hope that this is clearer! I had been inspired by how some of my correspondents were using the materials in their situations and wanted to enable greater use.
Above all, I still just want people to use my materials. Like back in 2002 when I started the site. Most authors want to be read, and I'm no exception! I left in place just one restriction: "You may not claim copyright to original English Banana.com materials. International copyright for English Banana.com materials belongs to Matt Purland/English Banana.com 2002-2008." This was purely so that nobody - no company or private individual - could take the materials and put a walled garden around them, preventing others from using either the materials or the licence.
There isn't a lot more I can do to make the materials freer and more open aside from making them public domain. Maybe that will be the next step. To those who want to use the materials for education and to help others: great. Good for you. To those who want to use the materials to make money for their charitable cause, or school project, or for their basic daily needs: please do. And to those who want to use the materials to make money for themselves - even a lot of money - go for it. Seriously. Do it - with my blessing.
18th December: The site passed another important milestone when for the first time over four million pages were viewed in a single month. Astounding!
"Philosophy" is a strong word, but from the early days of the site - from its inception - I had wanted to put materials online that people could interact with, and that would be helpful to them in learning or teaching English. Along the way I have discovered ways to make money from my materials; ways to sell them, and to control them; ways to share them, and ways to set them free. Now I hope that English Banana.com is on the right track. I'm a Christian, and am (sometimes!) guided by this set of beliefs. Far from always getting it right, I have more often than not got it wrong.
This story has many wrong turnings and blind alleys in it. I hope that the way is now clear for people to use this set of materials. It's not that great an offering. I sincerely hope it's not the best thing that I will ever write. I would like one day to be able to - and have time to - sit back, relax, wait for inspiration, and bang out a brilliant novel, film, play, or award-winning TV sitcom... Not just English Banana.com materials...!
"Influences" are much easier to list. I like and have been influenced by the following:
Books: Leo Tolstoy, John Irving, Sue Townsend, Victor Hugo, George Eliot, and travel writing. (At the age of sixty-three Tolstoy gave away the copyright on all his works published after 1881, and all future works. Fortunately for his (huge) family, his great novels, "Anna Karenina" and "War and Peace", had already been written before then.)
Films: Woody Allen, Kevin Costner (I would pay money to watch him read the phone book), The Coen Brothers, Richard Curtis, and Pixar films.
Theatre: musicals such as "Chess", "Miss Saigon", "Martin Guerre", and "Little Shop of Horrors".
Art: Pieter Brueghel the Elder (especially "Hunters in the Snow"), and Seurat.
Music: U2, The Killers, Pink, Darren Hayes, Arctic Monkeys, and John Shuttleworth. Plus, I like virtually all chart music. I'm not a big fan of heavy metal though, and I can't get on with modern jazz.
Radio: Scott Mills, Sara Cox, Adam and Joe, Russell Brand, Jonathan Ross, Elaine Paige, and Bob Harris.
TV Programmes: mainly comedy, like Alan Partridge, "The Office", "Blackadder", "Curb Your Enthusiasm", "Adam and Joe", anything produced by Armando Iannucci, "Seinfeld", "Cheers", "Teachers", and "The Simpsons".
Nobody knows what will happen, but in terms of revenue - if I'm optimistic - the future may hold more income from ad companies (apart from the three ad companies noted above, I get a small revenue from two additional companies - Chitika and Mochiads), along with more income from sales of books and this CD-ROM. In terms of the materials, I'm sure that I will write more English Banana.com books and materials. It's hard to know what the fruit of the new Free Copying Licence and Free Licence to Run Courses will be. It's no longer in my hands what happens to my materials. Maybe people will use them, but I won't hear about it. Maybe nothing ground-breaking will happen. Then again, maybe something big will happen. Who knows?
It's probably time to finish this short history of English Banana.com - partly because now I'm just rambling, but partly because it is bang up to date. What will happen will, no doubt, be recorded in the next English Banana.com update.
Matt Purland, Ostróda, Poland - 3rd January 2009