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  • Paul Deichmann

Behind the scenes with Karin, Unscripted's Program Director

Much of our success as a program at The Unscripted Project is comes down to what happens outside the classroom: the scheduling of meetings with teachers and administration, the planning to avoid holidays and school trips, making sure that we’ll be in classrooms with space to move, distributing surveys and pencils and stickers–and we are immensely lucky to have Karin Potter-Simmons keeping all that happening. Karin is our Program Director and makes happen all the things we need to ensure our program succeeds. I sat down with her to ask her about how she came to work with us, what changes she’s seen us go through, and what she’s looking forward to in the near future. 


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 


Paul: Hi, Karin! Thanks for chatting with me today. When did you join Unscripted? What year was that?


Karin: I joined in the summer of 2021.


Paul: So after the 1st year of our program


Karin: Yep, after Zoom year.


Paul: Would you, to set the stage a little bit, would you tell us a little about your background? What were you doing before you came to be our program director? 


Karin: So my background is in social work and so just being a social worker, recognizing all the social problems in Philadelphia, I said, “how do we really get to the root of these?” I got into education because I said, “OK, it seems to be the common theme.” You know, that education is kind of the driving force of all of those things. So when I moved into education I worked with the school district of Philadelphia, I worked with assistant superintendents doing comprehensive planning. I would help the principals address all of those guardrails and goals of the district, whether it be a parent involvement goal or literacy goal and so on and so forth. That was great to be able to be inside of the school and effect change in that way. 


"...I started reevaluating things and trying to figure out how to do my part in breathing life back into the shutdown world.."

Then COVID happened and put everybody at home and I started reevaluating things and trying to figure out how to do my part in breathing life back into the shutdown world. My daughters are dancers, so we built ballet bars at home so that they could continue to dance. We delivered ballet bars to other families so they could continue to dance. And then watching how the arts were just so transformative, it kept my girls going and kept all the students that we touched going, I said, “Man, how do I now integrate the arts and education to do my part in, you know, addressing things going on in the world?” And so, I started searching. I found Unscripted and I was like, “what?” You know, cause also I can only [at that time] think about Wild N Out and Who’s Line. I'm like, “okay, how is that gonna work?” And then I cruise the website a little bit, applied and was like, “you know what, it's a shot in the dark, but this sounds amazing.” And then I got the job and was super excited to be able to just do my part and you know, here I am today.


"watching how the arts were just so transformative, it kept my girls going and kept all the students that we touched going, I said, 'Man, how do I now integrate the arts and education to do my part in, you know, addressing things going on in the world?'”


Paul: Wow. And we're so lucky to have you...you mentioned, Wild N Out and Whose Line. You don't look at those at first glance and go like, “yeah, that's how you use art to affect change in education.” But I'm glad you took the risk because I think we're much better off from your involvement in the program to help us connect with more people.  It's been great. And just to leverage all the connections you have in the school district has been so incredible. You know the playing field that we're operating in so well.


Karin: Absolutely. I get to come from a couple different angles: a part of the administration at one point, being a parent, and also I grew up in Philadelphia so I went to public schools. To have all of those things come together… I’m kinda invested. I’m kinda invested. 


Paul: So what do you remember what Unscripted was like when you started and how it has changed over the course of the 3 years that you've been with us?


Karin: Absolutely. It was, once again, an amazing program, but the buy-in may not have been as intense as it is now. I remember starting out and thinking, “OK, how do we create this buzz? How do we make sure that we are, you know, a household name?” And I remember walking into schools and observing classes and doing pre-workshop meetings and just getting to know teachers. The first year was on zoom so I got to come in on that first in person thing. [Teachers would say,] “Wait a minute are they gonna touch each other, like are we gonna be close?”


[And we would say,] “This is just a space where we're going to have fun. It's going to be lighthearted, low stakes.” And to see [the program] transform this reluctant space of “whoa, this person is near me” to like, “wow, I have this new friend” or even to see the teachers being able to understand how to connect with students better (because prior to this all the kids were avatars or whatever the case may have been) but to be in person in human form and just be able to connect with people in a space was just like, “OK, this is the thing.” And then to just see it snowball and transform over time to be this amazing program that we've connected best friends. We're connecting students to real-world actions all through improv.


Paul: It's been super cool to begin to get those roots landed in the system and really start to develop strong connections. But you point out some of the challenges. There's a lot, you know, the program is unconventional… In your mind, what are some of our biggest challenges as a program that you see as you coordinate and put us in schools?


Karin: I don't think a challenge is actually the students, the students are the least challenging factor. It's scheduling and things like that...it becomes a little bit challenging to make sure that we end before proms and Christmas break. So scheduling, I would say, is our biggest challenge. Little challenging is, to go back to the students, getting the buy-in from students. In the very beginning, students are always reluctant about new things or silly things because they don't want to be called out but if you see your whole class is doing the same thing, everybody's being silly and it's not just you being called out.That's an easy hurdle to get over.


Paul: Yeah, that's sort of like assumed as part of the program, right? Like we know they're going to be hesitant. We know we have to make it an easy on ramp first. And then by the end, we can just be like, yeah, play a scene. And they do things, you know, because a whole transformation has happened in the room. So yeah, that's just par for the course, student resistance. But yeah, scheduling, I feel that. And you're the one who really bears the brunt of all of the difficulty of that, the difficulty of times and dates and days off and all of that coordination. 


Karin: Oh, yes. For things like that. But it all works out. And it works out for the best of our students.


Paul: Absolutely. So the other thing that you are overseeing now is a lot of expansion of the program, right? We've sort of got our core curriculum and our core program sort of down and we're growing in a bunch of different ways. Would you talk about some of the things you're most excited about that are coming soon?


Karin: Absolutely. We are launching an educator advisory board. I have teachers, principals,

administrators signed up across middle schools and high schools, probably equally 5 middle schools and 5 high schools, so that we can come together and figure out things like “ how could we be more impactful? What is the best case for getting into schools earlier in the school year? How do we make sure that our curriculum and what we're trying to do aligns with what's happening in the classroom?” 


So that's a really big thing because we'll get the direct input of the staff in the schools and the people that work with the kids all year. Even though we only push in once a week, we'll have that kind of expert opinion. So that's really cool. We're also hoping to launch our after-school program this coming semester in the fall, which is going to be fantastic. A lot of times, and you know it Paul, our students are asking “what's the part 2? Okay, we finished the 10 week, we would love to do more.” So to give our students an opportunity to have that part too where they can delve deeper into the scene work and maybe even some mentoring and things like that. So I'm super excited about that.

We are launching an educator advisory board. I have teachers, principals, administrators signed up across middle schools and high schools...so that we can come together and figure out things like “ how could we be more impactful?

Paul: Absolutely. Those are both really exciting things. And we have a bunch of summer camp programs that have our finger in the pot now as well, as a result of you working with these different organizations and helping us network through Philadelphia as well, which is also really exciting.


Karin: Absolutely.


Paul: Yeah. Well, then the exciting things keep on coming. There's lots of fun, exciting growth, and I'm so glad to get to share all the work that you do behind the scenes. Your role encompasses a lot of different things. One thing that we haven't talked about is you get all the surveys that we need everywhere. There's a lot of running around with huge stacks of papers to all these different schools. This is just a sampler of the things that you do.  Is there anything else that I've really missed that's important to talk about that you do?


Karin: But you know what? I'm glad that you mentioned our surveys. The surveys are so important. They help to validate the work that we do. Because we do our pre-survey and then a mid and then post to kind of gauge where students are in their social emotional growth and just where they are in terms of the benefit of our program. And even though it's tedious to run around the city, passing out surveys, picking up surveys and things like that.  You know the final product of being able to refine our program and spend summer time addressing curriculum or anything else that may come up in the surveys makes it all worth it.


Paul: It really does. Thanks, Karin. I'm so grateful for all the time and energy you put in to make this possible that we can share art in a way that improves people's lives.  And thanks for sharing with us today about all the work you do.


Karin: Thank you, Paul.





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