One particularly rewarding element was a simple technique I've been using for years called 'responding to text'. The 'text' is anything the students are currently working on. It can be in any form: print, website, podcast, video, or live performance. What's really magical is how they learn to discuss the topics at hand in a mature, fun, and respectful way. Here's how it works (it's very simple):
Following a lesson or experience, four to five students stand in a casual line in front of the class.
One member is chosen to provide an introduction in which the main idea or focus is summarized in an exciting way.
Each member is expected to follow a simple set of rules. First, only one voice is ever speaking at a time. If someone is explaining something and begins to 'run out of steam', it's the responsibility of the other members to fill in any awkward pauses with fresh material. In this way, the students learn to work collaboratively and to care for each other.
Lastly, a different member is expected to conclude with something for the listeners to think about or a good wrap up statement which summarizes the main ideas put forth. This is followed by a quick thank-you.
Try it with your class. You'll be amazed at how effective it is and how easy it is to gauge your students understanding. Great for assessment, too!