Pencils versus Charcoal - The only reason I recommend pencil for the beginner class on this website is that the people taking this class are real, true, beginners. I don't want to recommend a bunch of expensive materials and then have you discover this really isn't your thing after all.
Artists' charcoal comes in many forms. You can get blocks of charcoal the size of a cooking briquette and you can get charcoal in tiny thin sticks. By the way, use charcoal made for artists, it is more uniform and gives much better results.
Charcoal also comes as the "lead" in pencils, which is my personal favorite form because it's just that much less messy. I use General's charcoal pencils because they are made, as they always have been, in a factory in Jersey City, New Jersey. There's just something about that kind of local buying that really appeals to me.
However, General is by no means the only manufacturer and there are several that are also considered top-of-the-line: Faber-Castell and Derwent come to mind.