Byron Center — It’s Dia de los Muertos, a day filled with remembrance and reflection in high school Spanish teacher Randall Domeier’s classroom as students present memorials for loved ones who have passed.
The Spanish 4 students have adorned boxes, or cajas in Spanish, with photos, flowers, religious symbols and pictures of what their loved ones enjoyed. They hold them up as they present to their peers, sharing memories of grandmothers, grandfathers and others who touched their lives.
The classroom is decorated for Day of the Dead with skeletons in fancy dresses, brightly painted skulls and detailed, framed photos. After each presentation, Domeier gives supportive feedback and asks questions in Spanish.
It’s one of the most memorable days of the year, said Domeier, who started the project in honor of his godson who died before age 2 in 2001. Students not only learn about the holiday, which is celebrated Oct. 31-Nov. 2 in Mexico, but they also experience it in a meaningful way. He said students often tell him years later that they still have their cajas.
“The significance behind that whole project is for students to remember their loved ones who have passed, but also to open up some communication and conversation with their parents to share about their parents or grandparents,” he said. “They are learning a little about their family history.”
It can be an emotional experience.
“I do truly want the holiday to be something that means something to them,” Domeier said. “I try to make it a happy occasion, in that we are not forgetting these people.”
The project is one of many ways Domeier helps students experience Spanish more deeply than by just learning words. His classes are filled with lively interaction – back and forth dialogue, skits and various other ways of teaching “reading, writing, speaking, listening and cultural awareness,” he said. There’s lots of talking, tons of energy and always music.
The 27-year Spanish teacher, who is often easy to spot in bright yellow pants and colorful shirts, was recently recognized by the Byron Center Chamber of Commerce as Teacher of the Year. He was nominated by a team of teachers and administrators from the high school, where he also teaches driver’s education and coaches girls’ tennis.
“He is everywhere,” said fellow high school Spanish teacher Jill Kraker of Domeier. “He knows the students inside and outside the classroom. He’s excited every day, even if he’s tired. He just has a ton of energy and always is coming up with new things. He is great to work with, very fun.”
A Love for Culture
Domeier, who lives in Byron Center, is a 1990 graduate of Byron Center High School and received his bachelor’s degree at Western Michigan University. He earned his master’s degree in second language acquisition at University of Southern Mississippi. He has also studied and participated in numerous study-abroad programs in Mexico.
It was on one of those study-abroad trips in Morelia, Mexico, where he met his wife, Lucia. Now, bilingualism is part of the family. Lucia works in the English-language Department for elementary students in Byron Center. Their daughter Jackie is a Grand Valley State University student studying to be a Spanish immersion teacher and son Enrique is studying business and Spanish at Western Michigan. Daughter Dinara is a junior taking Spanish 4, taught by her dad.
Domeier’s interest in Spanish started in high school and blossomed in the years following.
“In high school, as a freshman taking Spanish 1, I really liked the sounds and the ability to speak another language. I found that fascinating,” he said, remembering the time he was able to buy some boots and a coat while speaking Spanish at a market in California.
At Western, he decided to become an exchange student and lived with a family in Guanajuato, Mexico, for eight weeks.
“That is when I really realized, ‘I love this.’ It’s fun to get to know the culture and the people. The Mexican culture is so warm and friendly. The food. The music. I just loved everything about it.”
Before students made their Day of the Dead presentations, Domeier began class by leading them next door to sing “Las Mañanitas,” a traditional Mexican birthday song, to Kraker. The class serenaded her festively.
“We start class almost immediately with some type of warm-up, music or song,” he said. “Students are required to learn different songs and chants. It’s important for me to hear them using the language, and music is one of those ways to tap into those learners who might struggle with reading and writing but can perform by speaking.”
He focuses on traditional song and prayer, both of which he learned while studying and visiting Mexico.
“I really try to hit upon cultural songs that I learned being an exchange student,” he said.
A traditional piñata-breaking song is another favorite. For Day of the Dead, the class learned the song, “Recuérdame,” from the Disney movie, “Coco.”
One of Domeier’s favorite parts of teaching Spanish is traveling with students. He first took students to Morelia, which is in Michoacán in western Mexico, in 1999. Since then, he and colleagues have traveled with student groups as large as 60 to Spain, Peru, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Brazil, Italy and Costa Rica.
Their first trip since the pandemic paused travel is scheduled for this summer, in Costa Rica and Panama.
“I think it’s important for students to apply their skills, but also to get them out of West Michigan and see what the world is really like,” he said.
Students say Domeier’s enthusiasm is contagious.
“He is by far my favorite teacher. I love his energy,” said junior Rachel Phelen. “He’s always so positive, and he manages to engage the kids even with all the distractions today. I think that’s super-exciting. He helps us memorize songs which makes the class more interesting, and he really inspires students to always want to learn more. He always has a smile on his face.”
Everybody talks about Domeier’s decorations, energy and pizzazz, Rachel said: “Everybody wants to be as energetic as him. He creates such an accepting environment. He’s willing to be open to new ideas.”
‘Relationships are so much of who I am and what I do that I want to make sure the students know that I truly care about them.’— Spanish teacher Randall Domeier
Senior Katie Richards has had Domeier for a teacher in Spanish 2, 4 and as a driver’s education instructor, and calls him “an amazing teacher.”
“He never makes you feel less than you are,” Katie said. “He always pushes you to go farther and farther with your learning abilities. He is always excited and energetic. I’ve never seen him on a day when he wasn’t at his top energy level.”
Spanish teacher Laura Showers said Domeier goes the extra mile in every way. He even gives up prep time to work in the cafeteria during lunch.
“He very much tries to get to know the whole student,” Showers said. “He is constantly going to outside events. He goes to all of the sporting events. He coaches. He does lunch duty here … he goes to all the art (events) and band concerts; he chaperones dances. He is literally everywhere inside and outside of the school. He makes an effort to connect with students.”
Domier says those relationships are key to his approach to teaching. He sends two notes a day home to different students highlighting what they’ve done well in class and often emails or calls parents with positive news.
“I do anything I can to bring kindness and caring, to make them feel like they are the most special person in the class,” Domeier said. “Relationships are so much of who I am and what I do that I want to make sure the students know that I truly care about them.”