In the past two years that I've been subbing in the Fairfield and Seymour high schools and middle schools, along with guest lecturing for a colleague at Quinnipiac University, I've been giving strong consideration to getting my Connecticut certification and returning full-time to the classroom, which I left some 19 years ago for public relations.

But the volunteer teaching for Junior Achievement (JA) that I've been doing these past few weeks with third graders at McKinley Elementary School has been among my most rewarding educational experiences in years. All of my previous work in the classroom had centered around older students and, frankly, I didn't know what to expect that first day when these lively third graders arrived from lunch.

I needn't have worried. Ms. J, my absolutely terrific cooperating teacher, and her wonderful students, have given me a whole new perspective on how younger students learn and where their interests lie. Our JA unit, which is all about cities and towns and how they are planned and zoned, has proven to be a truly interesting learning experience for all of us.

It's hard to believe that we've already completed three sessions and there are only two left. These 45-minute periods go so quickly, and the students have been so responsive and polite, that the time goes way too fast.

Initially, when the JA coordinator called me, I wondered where I'd find the time in my already crazy schedule to squeeze in a 45-minute teaching session once a week for five weeks. Now, I can't wait for Wednesday to roll around.

I really have to give JA credit. Whoever dreams up these units and activities really knows how to keep elementary schoolers busy. I have to reread each unit a couple of times to be sure I'm including all the practical applications.

Our sessions always begin on the reading carpet in the back of the room. After our opening discussion about towns and cities and the zones where business, industry, farming, residential and multi-purpose like schools and libraries are placed, we've moved rapidly into building on that foundation.

For each new session I review the previous lesson with my eager charges and then we jump right into the newest rung on our learning foundation. In session two, for instance, I had students point out from color pictures I distributed where various businesses, industries, residences and other buildings belonged on a huge zone map, which we attached to the smart board. They did a wonderful job on that exercise.

This week when we assembled on the carpet and completed our quick review about zones, I read to Ms. J's students from a wonderful library book about how houses are built. And I got some great response. One student's grandfather was an architect who designed a family room and back porch. Another student's dad was an electrician who had actually installed the electricity for a fellow student's home. Other students spoke about parents who were considering or working on plans for new bathrooms or storage areas. Our discussion was lively and engaging.

When students moved to their desks, I helped them become home-builders for as we explored a special student blue print of a typical house. With Ms. J's help and special JA rulers, we measured various rooms in the house to scale. Each inch on the ruler represented 10 feet and it was wonderful to watch those student lights go on as they figured out the answers.

As an extra activity, I suggested that students think about drawing their own house plan and measuring the rooms and views to scale. They warmed to the idea quickly.

I had promised them a surprise and saved it for the end of our session. Each student received his or her own pop-up building, including a bank, a factory, a school, a library, a florist shop and a gasoline station, among others. Between now and next week, they will color in their building, add their own personal touches and we will once again use our zone map to place the build. Their enthusiasm was contagious as students opened their pop-up buildings or houses and made them their own.

Next week's activities will take us in a different direction and focus on building a business, and I'm sure students will come in prepared to jump right in again. I'm hoping to have all their names memorized by then. I'm getting close, but once a week isn't allowing me to connect all names and faces. And they remind me about it politely.

JA programs like this one at McKinley are truly valuable for helping students understand how they are a vital part of their community. Frankly, I've developed my own appreciation of our town planning and zoning board just from the three weeks I've been teaching.

JA history dates back to 1919 and this organization has impacted millions of students at all grade levels. In my early days of teaching back in the 1960s, I taught after school programs that were often tedious after a long day. But I taught several groups of seventh and eighth graders and came to enjoy the classes immensely.

Today, the JA curricula is streamlined into programs like JA in Two Days, a great middle school set-up that I taught this past fall with 40 other volunteers; and these five-week daytime elementary programs, which also involve numerous volunteers. Donor companies and businesses underwrite one or more classes and materials.

Of course, in these tough economic times, it's more difficult for businesses to underwrite JA programs, but so many are stepping up. Hats off to Fairfield businesses who have jumped on the bandwagon with their generosity.

Then, of course, there is that strong need for volunteers like me to teach these programs. I only wish I had more times to offer.

Lastly, I cannot say enough about the dedicated teachers, who put up with volunteers like me invading their classrooms for 45 -- 50 minutes once a week, and their students. Professionals like Ms. J are the linchpin of JA's success. They provide the structure, insight and direction and discipline for the classes and help our corps of volunteers avoid educational minefields.

I'm going to really miss my temporary students when my assignment ends, but I'm proud to say that I've learned as much from them as I hope they've learned from me and JA. This weekly experience has been one of the most valuable in my teaching career.

Steve Gaynes can be reached at steven.gaynes@yahoo.com.