Enter the Ninjas

By day, Sheldon Durstling (BEd ‘12), Cheryl Lyster (BEd ‘13) and Angie Barron (BEd ‘04) are elementary school teachers. But when they’re not in the classroom, they become online ninjas, putting their skills and experience to killer use developing a website for fellow educators called Ninja Plans.

Launched by Durstling, Lyster and Barron in November 2015, the website began as an offshoot of a Facebook page that grew too popular to manage via social media. Users sign up for a free Ninja Plans account and can start browsing and sharing lesson plans and other teaching materials with just the click of a mouse.

As for that business name? “We were looking for a name that would be memorable, convey the ease and speed of our service, and be simple to say and hear,” says Durstling.

Here are five reasons for you to tap into your inner ninja and join this homegrown online community.

Reason #1: Sharing is caring

Ninja Plans is all about collaboration, not competition. Lyster, who works as an elementary school teacher in Calgary, describes it as “harnessing the power of community”. Educational content is crowdsourced from the site’s users—anyone who creates an account can download resources from the site or upload their own to share with others.

“I love sharing,” says Lyster. “If I have a resource, I won’t even put my name on it. If you want to use it, it’s yours. My idea could generate a thousand other great ideas that work extremely well in someone else’s classroom.”

The site also has a community section that was launched in February, where users can post to forums both general and specific to share ideas and get advice. In one forum, a user identified as a “Grade 6 teacher at a small school in northern Alberta” writes, “I feel amazing every time someone downloads one of my resources. It makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside!”

Reason #2: No one wants to be the ‘deer in the headlights’

Anyone with teaching experience knows that being a rookie teacher can be tough.

“I think that from your first practicum through your first year of teaching, especially, it’s very much a ‘deer in the headlights’ experience,” says Durstling, an elementary teacher with Edmonton Public Schools and the coding ninja of the trio. “Any assistance you can get is helpful.”

Sometimes a new teacher—or a teacher new to a given subject or grade—can rely on more experienced colleagues to provide guidance and share resources and time-tested ideas. But not always. In small schools, a teacher may be the only one teaching at a given grade level. Or co-workers may just be too busy to help.

“I taught junior high, and I just moved down to Grade 1,” says Lyster. “I went from having everything that I needed to ‘Where do I even start?’ So I look at what other people have done, what’s worked for them, and then I make it work for me.”

Ninja plan cards
“You work hard enough. You deserve Ninja Plans.” Lyster, Durstling and Barron flash their ninja cards.

Reason #3: Anyone can join and contribute

Homeschoolers, tutors, teachers at Alberta international schools around the world—any educator who teaches from Alberta Education’s Programs of Study can share resources from the comfort of their home or classroom via Ninja Plans.

Durstling knows a couple of Alberta teachers who are working at an accredited school in the United Arab Emirates who have signed up to the site. According to Alberta Education, there are 17 Alberta accredited international schools which support more than 4,600 students in K-12 and employ over 330 Alberta certificated teachers.

Reason #4: New resources are added all the time

Just six months after launching, Ninja Plans is approaching 1,500 users, 7,500 downloads and 83,000 page views. There are some 360 resources currently available on the site, running the gamut from blank templates to detailed lesson plans, French to English, and kindergarten to high school.

Looking for a Grade 6 Social Studies project worksheet focused on ancient Athens? Ninja Plans has one. A Biology 30 performance task to assess your students’ grasp of Mendelian genetics? Someone uploaded that too. One teacher has even shared their full-year plan for a particular grade level.

Since Durstling, Lyster and Barron can’t review every resource that gets uploaded to the site, they rely on the online community for feedback. “When users download a resource, they can rate it, and they can also add commentary as to what they did with it. Maybe they came up with another great idea based on that resource and can share it with others,” says Lyster.

Reason #5: It’s free and easy to use

If you can upload a file to Google Drive or add an attachment to an email, you’re ready to use Ninja Plans.

“We’ve tried to make it as intuitive as possible,” says Durstling, who worked in the technology sector before coming to the University of Alberta to pursue a bachelor of education degree. “And our plan is never to charge the teachers. I mean, teachers already pay enough, right? Hopefully, through advertising revenue, we can support our operating costs.”

What’s next?

The team says Ninja Plans 2.0 is on the horizon, and it will include many new features and functional elements. While it's too early to reveal just what that will look like, Durstling says the vision is to build the site with a forward-thinking approach to ensure it is scalable, reliable and intuitive.

Right now, the team is focused on spreading the word about their website and getting new users to sign up and start sharing materials. “We need our users to upload,” says Barron, an elementary teacher with Edmonton Public Schools. “We don’t want anybody to feel timid or scared to upload something that they’ve created. Because, guaranteed, at least one teacher—which translates to how many other students—will find that tool to be so valuable.”

“Think about the impact of just the approximately 7,500 downloads we’ve had. If you say the average class size in Alberta is even just 20 students, that’s 150,000 people,” says Durstling. “That’s 150,000 students impacted so far. In a few months.”

Feature image: The creators of Ninja Plans are all business, posing in a classroom in the Education South building. Pictured from l. to r. Cheryl Lyster, Sheldon Durstling and Angie Barron.