At the beginning of January I published the Make Money with English Banana.com PowerPoint presentation online, and we have continued to link to it from our home page ever since. It accompanied a lesson of the same name, which I did on WizIQ.com in January. The aim of the lesson and the presentation was to show people how they could use our free licences to make money, e.g, through printing and selling our materials.
Also in January, I completed and published Unit 9 of Talk a Lot Elementary Book 3: Internet. I started to work on material for my next book, Talk a Lot Intermediate Book 1, by focusing on non-literal English, and in particular phrasal verbs. I taught online lessons on the subject and began compiling lists. At the same time, I was preparing and writing material for the final unit of Talk a Lot Elementary Book 3: Unit 10 - Australia. For this final unit I was a bit self-indulgent and wrote about a place that is very dear to my heart, rather than a more 'typical' or general topic. I felt that I could, since I had almost got to the end of the book!
Unfortunately, 2010 was typified by problems with servers. On 12th February our server crashed and was down and out for several hours. It wouldn't be the last time this year.
By the middle of February, Unit 10 - Australia was finished and online, and I was working on compiling the ten units of Book 3 into book form, adding an introduction, covers, page numbers, appendices, and so on. At the same time, I had one eye on the future, putting together material for the first unit of Talk a Lot Intermediate Book 1, which was on the topic of Hotel. I chose this topic because I had already started working on such a unit about two years earlier, and had some material that I could rework, including vocabulary and ideas for sentence block sentences.
The presence of English Banana Trust was reduced on the site during this month, due to the group being virtually inactive at this point.
Also in February, as part of a drive to increase funding for the site, I launched the Sponsor a Lesson project, where visitors to the site could send money via PayPal which would pay for an online lesson with me - but not for the person who paid, but rather for people who couldn't afford to pay. The idea was that once somebody paid for the lesson - US$15 per 45 minutes - I would then book and teach a free lesson on WizIQ.com - which I wouldn't have otherwise taught. The scheme came to nothing, though, with not a single person volunteering to sponsor a lesson.
Meanwhile, I was continuing to mail out Certificates of Authorisation to various teachers around the world.
On March 12th our server was down again, suspended due to 'non-payment', despite us having paid! The server was down again on 18th March and I finally lost patience with the hosting company, frantically searching for another option, and finally moving the site to a new VPS (Virtual Private Server) on 20th March. I kept the site live on the other server, during this changeover period. Unfortunately, the new server gave 30-50% worse performance in terms of visitor numbers and page views than the previous one, and by 9th April I had changed back to the previous (still unsatisfactory) server. It was especially frustrating, because this all happened during one of our busiest times on the site - March-May - when schools, colleges, and universities are all working hard, and the hot summer weather has yet to arrive and lure our surfers out of doors!
By the middle of March Elementary Book 3 was virtually complete, with all corrections made, and just a few final checks necessary. It was published online on 16th March.
As part of research and preparations for Intermediate Book 1, I created a lesson based on the slang and non-literal English used on The Scott Mills Show on BBC Radio 1. The lesson on WizIQ was a great success, and it was really helpful for me in terms of thinking about non-literal forms of English and how prevalent they are in the conversations of native speakers. My lesson was even featured on Scott's show - on 29th March - so six million listeners were able to hear a short excerpt from it! Scott and the Team seemed flattered, as I had hoped they would, since I'm a big fan of theirs!
The beginning of April saw a newly-designed home page. The aim was to make it easier to see and access the different free books, e.g. Big Grammar Book and the Talk a Lot books. The rest of the home page stayed more or less the same, and I kept this design throughout 2010 and 2011 as well. This month I was working on defining non-literal English and creating categories, such as 'Idioms', 'Phrasal Verbs', 'Metaphor', etc., that would eventually become part of the 'Features of Non-Literal English' section of each of the four units.
On 15th April I started what I hoped would become a regular series on WizIQ - English Teachers Sharing Ideas. The aim was to create a regular meeting place for English teachers, who could support each other and, er, share ideas! We met only a couple of times before disbanding, mainly due to lack of interest from other English teachers. There didn't seem to be any real wish or desire to share ideas, and I felt like it was more a place where participants expected me to share ideas and them to listen, which wasn't the aim at all. I wanted to learn from other teachers!
During the second half of April I wrote Unit 1 of Intermediate Book 1, which was finally published on 26th May. I realised that while Book 3's units were 'completable' in about a month, these intermediate-level units would take at least two months each.
Towards the end of April, I emailed all previous recipients of our Certificates of Authorisation with the request for feedback, including pictures, stories, etc. about what had happened since they'd been using the authorisation. I received only a couple of replies, and no pictures. This was disappointing, since with pictures and stories I could be more active in promoting the work of English Banana.com. It also seemed like very little to ask in return for what we had given in terms of the certificates. The quest to get meaningful feedback went on!
Also in April, I found a couple of students who were willing to pay for lessons online, having first attended my free lessons on WizIQ. This helped to generate a little money that could go towards paying some offline bills.
In May I was still looking to generate income from the site, and I approached a major teaching website to ask if they wanted to sponsor English Banana.com. They didn't, and the idea was swiftly abandoned! Feeling discouraged, and ever hopeful of generating more income from the site, by the 20th May I was drawing up plans for making English Banana.com into a pay-for-content site (which didn't happen).
By 26th May, Unit 1: Hotel was completed and I continued to work on the Intermediate Supplement, which I intended to produce after two units of the book were completed. As it turned out, I completed four units before turning my attention to the supplement, at the end of 2010.
At the beginning of June, all Unit 1 materials were now online, in a specially-designed area on the site. Visitors could also download all of the materials in a zip file, from Mediafire.com, which was a new development, and a feature that relatively few visitors have taken advantage of to date.
I went straight back to work on Unit 2: Problems. This was a really interesting unit to teach and write, because it was very practical - we all have problems, right?! I also put the first collection of .mp3 podcast lessons online at Mediafire.com, and published two compilation booklets of worksheets that I had been working on: all of the Talk a Lot Role Play pages (from books 1 and 3) and all of the discussion question pages (from the first three books). The aim here was to create handy resources for teachers who wanted to specifically focus on one or other of these areas.
An attempt to raise funds for the site through donations from grateful teachers via a page on Pledgie.com failed dismally, and the appeal was closed without raising a single penny.
I started to work on plans to create a 'bandwidth-lite' version of the site which could go online quickly if the site failed, or if we had to change servers unexpectedly. The plans didn't come to anything, although by the end of the year I had started to rationalise and reduce material on the site, especially the games.
On 15th June we launched a brand new regular podcast - 'Learn Idioms...' - which was a great success. I only managed to record three idioms podcasts in 2010, but by the middle of July this podcast was number one in its category on iTunes in several countries, including Poland, where it was #1 in K-12 category and #1 out of all audio podcasts in Poland! As a side note, on 6th July I switched our .xml feed to Feedburner.com, which subsequently enabled us to see some very useful stats about how many people were downloading our podcasts, and where they came from, and so on.
On Saturday 19th June I celebrated my first anniversary of teaching online! Plus I was still recording my free lessons and making them available as regular podcasts on a weekly basis after each lesson.
In July I put the second podcast collection online at Mediafire.com and by 18th July I had completed and published Unit 2 of Intermediate Book 1. It was great to get this finished before my three-week holiday to England. I sent a hard copy version of Unit 1: Hotel to Avanti Books Ltd, the main company who sold our materials as hard copies, to see whether they thought they could sell it, and to see if they wanted to order a few copies, but unfortunately they ceased trading around this time and had sold their last book. It was a great shame to see this small but consistent revenue stream dry up, especially since Avanti had supported English Banana.com books since they agreed to stock our very first book, the Big Grammar Book, back in 2004.
On 4th August, while holidaying in the UK, I was able to do an interview on BBC Radio Norfolk to promote the website and in particular the offer of the free licences. It had been arranged by English Banana Trust, and the show was hosted by Matthew Gudgeon. It was the second time I had appeared on BBC radio this year, after being featured on the Scott Mills show in March! I continued to work on Unit 3: Media, both on holiday and after I returned.
The English Banana Trust had been requesting funding for their work, and towards the end of August they received a very positive letter from their local MP Norman Lamb, who had recently been appointed Chief Parliamentary and Political Adviser to the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in the new Coalition government. However, funding from the government was not forthcoming, and at the time of writing, the Trust is still seeking to raise funds so that they can begin to tackle their charitable objectives.
At the end of August I embarked on a stunt to support what I was writing about in the Media unit. I spent a whole week without deliberately accessing the Media. The results were extremely eye-opening, and formed the basis of a memorable lesson WizIQ. In short, I learned that the media basically exists to sell us stuff! You can download the PowerPoint presentation here.
In September, the English Banana Trust began planning for a special event to officially launch the charity. It took place in December in Holt, Norfolk. I agreed a new advertising partnership with BehaviourNeeds.com whereby we would get paid every time somebody clicked on a link on our site and went on to buy one of their products. This met with very limited success, with only a couple of purchases made through English Banana.com, and was discontinued in summer 2011.
I had continued to search for a different server solution for the site, and on 21st September we changed server again - this time to a dedicated server. For the first time in the site's history, we weren't sharing a server with other sites. The aim was, of course, to improve the number of visitors and the number of page views, but this proved frustratingly hard to achieve. There was no dramatic increase (or fall, thankfully) in either!
By the end of the month I had almost finished Unit 3: Media, and I was busily collecting vocabulary, idioms, phrasal verbs, and slang for the next one, Unit 4: Getting a Job. I was using all the bits of spare time in between my scheduled lessons to work on the Talk a Lot materials, and tested out material with students who had paid for conversation classes at the schools where I was teaching. I had lots of ideas for topics for Unit 4, but discounted several indulgent ideas (things that I wanted to explore, such as The Pacific) and went with Getting a Job as something that is intensely practical for learners, many of whom are late teens or early twenties and looking for a job is part of their life. Of course, almost everybody needs to look for a job at some point in their life!
On 4th October I published Unit 3: Media and then spent time creating 30 new games for our games lovers, who seemed to be as ravenous for new games as ever. I spent the first couple of weeks of this month correcting errors on the new server and creating a new, up-to-date site map.
I was excited to hear from Roger Roger Mosquera, a teacher and language school owner working in the Philippines, who was proposing to teach regular Talk a Lot lessons on WizIQ. It was really encouraging to discover that he was adapting Talk a Lot materials into American English and adding pictures to make them more suitable for his learners. This was really great tangible feedback from somebody who was making use of the licences.
Another example of people benefitting from the licences came in the shape of a partnership with What2Learn.com, who had adapted many of our Elementary worksheets into online quizzes. We put a link back to them, and they helped to promote English Banana.com, while also benefitting from the free material that we gave them for their quizzes. It was really exciting to see people in different parts of the world using the materials in ways that were genuinely profitable to them. Here are some more examples from people using the licences in 2010:
Arlene from The Philippines emailed us to say: 'Hi, I am an EFL tutor for Koreans. I have been teaching English online for over six years now. I find all your books very helpful to EFL students who have difficulty constructing sentences and expressing their ideas in English. All your resources have indeed helped a lot of my students. I am also a homeschooling mom. I am coming up with a site for homeschoolers in my country. I am representing Grace Learning Place, a school that offers homeschooling assistance and curriculum. I hope that you grant me a licence so I could include your books in my site so as to provide free, searchable access to course materials for EFL educators and learners.' The licence was granted, with pleasure!
We heard from many other teachers around the globe, including Luis from Mexico, who wrote: 'I presently am giving pronunciation courses here in Mexico and wish to expand to helping my students who usually come from traditional English grammar schools better their conversational skills. I found your role playing activities adequate for this end and would love to use them. Thank you for this opportunity to provide my struggling students with a chance to let go of their timid ways and start thinking in English, rather than translating.'
And Syed from India got in touch with us to tell us: 'I am an English teacher by profession and have started my career two and a half years back. Currently working with IndiaSkills ( A Manipal Education-City & Guilds Initiative). Teaching English and improving myself is my passion. Two days back, while surfing internet I found your website by luck. I am highly impressed by the altruistic contribution you are making to this world. firstly I thought that your website is like many other sites claiming to be free but there is always a catch and somehow they try to get paid but I was completely wrong. I couldn't believe that everything is free!! great Job. May God bless you for this invaluable favor.
I always wanted to start my own chain of institutes for learning English throughout India. But main obstacle was money and the learning and teaching material. I am extremely happy to know that you are offering authorisation certificate for running Talk a Lot sopken English course and for copying your material. I am very keen to start your spoken English course In south India for a start and plan to spread the chain across the country. I will charge a nominal fee from students and will teach needy students free of charge. I would be highly obliged if you kindly send your authorisation certificates for running Talk a Lot course and copying study material.'
The certificates were sent to Syed, as they were to all those who got in touch with us. You can read more about how people are using English Banana.com materials here.
The end of October saw me approximately halfway through writing Unit 4: Getting a Job, while teaching regular lessons on WizIQ based on these materials, gaining valuable feedback and ideas for how to progress with writing the unit.
In November I started to focus on the pronunciation work which would eventually become Talk a Lot Foundation Course, teaching a series of pronunciation workshops on WizIQ and practising with my students in offline classes at the language schools where I worked.
I spent some time putting together an in-depth presentation for the English Banana Trust event that happened in the first week of December. It was great to meet some new people who were interested in the work of the site and keen to help by becoming part of EB Trust.
I got fed up with my VPS hosting company and cancelled my contract, which I had kept on as a form of backup in case the dedicated server went wrong. Also this month I added 90 new games to the site.
Unit 4: Getting a Job was published online on December 2nd, completing the set of four units for Intermediate Book 1. I had decided to limit the number to four due to the length of each unit. Each unit contained such a lot of material (around 60 pages!) and was more like a mini-course than the Talk a Lot Elementary Book 3 units.
I continued to teach free pronunciation classes online - focusing on connected speech. This work was invaluable for me the following year when I came to write the Talk a Lot Foundation Course.
The hosting bill for the site was getting higher and higher, so I decided to remove some of the bandwidth-heavy files from the site - which was unfortunate for fans of the podcasts and fans of the games. I removed all but 5 of the 80+ free online class .mp3s, and - in a sharp about-face - all but 10 of the .swf game files. This had the desired effect of lightening the load on the server, but we received a lot of vocal complaints from unhappy gamers! Interestingly, nobody complained about the loss of the podcast lessons.
By 16th December I had a first-draft outline of my pronunciation method (later published in the Foundation Course), which I presented on WizIQ, and continued to tinker with during the rest of the month. I discovered a negative side of running a dedicated server this month when it was hacked and had to be reinstalled. It looked like server problems would dominate the year!
At the end of the year, having completed the four units of Intermediate Book 1, I turned my focus to writing and compiling the material that would make up the rest of the book - instructions and supplementary material. At this stage the pronunciation work was to have been part of this book, but at some point during early 2011 I realised that there had to be two books - Intermediate Book 1 and the Foundation Course.
* Completing Talk a Lot Elementary Book 3
* More and more teachers taking advantage of the free Certificates of Authorisation
* Creating and developing a whole new level of Talk a Lot - Intermediate Book 1 and completing the teaching material in the four units
* Appearing on BBC radio twice - then trying to live for a week without the media...!
* Celebrating one year teaching online with some really great students!
* Attending the launch party for English Banana Trust
* Getting stuck into developing my pronunciation method
What I was reading during the year while writing the new Talk a Lot materials:
More E. M. Forster: The Longest Journey, Maurice, Selected Stories, and Aspects of the Novel; more Thomas Hardy: Jude the Obscure, The Return of the Native, A Laodicean, and Under the Greenwood Tree; Dostoyevsky: The Brothers Karamazov, and The Idiot; more Russian writing: Pushkin - the Complete Prose, and The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy; Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte; and some light relief in the form of The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens, and Adrian Mole: The Prostrate Years by Sue Townsend.
Music I listened to during the year while writing the new Talk a Lot materials:
Flamingo - Brandon Flowers; Body Talk Parts 1 & 2 - Robyn; Live in Cuba - Simply Red; Some Kind of Trouble - James Blunt; This Delicate Thing We've Made - Darren Hayes (again!).
Matt Purland, Ostróda, Poland - 26th September 2011 (yes - it was a little late this year!)